Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

The “Vogelheim incident” caused the biggest stir in the Duchy of Bosporus.

Bosporus was the Empire’s earliest mining colony, characterized by brutal industrial labor juxtaposed with the academies training the next generation of Engineers and Overseers for the mines and factories. This volatile melting pot led Bosporus to become a hotbed of political activism. Labor unions, academic protesting and industrial sabotage boiled over in the background of the greatest expansion of Imperial dominion over the Oceans since the Age of Strife.

Dozens of stations arose from the materials gathered in Bosporus. Soon the Empire expanded southward, hungry for easier, cheaper materials now that Bosporus’ topsoil was rent asunder. The Empire established the colonies that would become the Union, offloading the indigens of Bosporus to these territories. The Empire hoped to “Imbrianize” Bosporus and end its colony status through deportations and assimilationist violence. Bosporus did not go quiet while Shimii, Volgians and other “ethnics” were deported south or forced to change their names and languages. Much to the Empire’s continued chagrin, Bosporus resisted Imbrianization as much as it could. The growing middle class of Bosporus continued to agitate in the Academies.

This was the situation, in brief, when Vogelheim set off a shockwave through the Empire.

Vogelheim terrified and infuriated the Bosporans. They did not care who it was that lived in that station. To them, it represented an escalation of fascistic violence that defied the simple condemnations that Erich Fueller and the aristocrats under him had leveled on the Volkisch. If Vogelheim could be destroyed, any station would be. The political left argued that the Volkisch was the Empire. There was nothing distinguishing these rival factions when it came to the people. The Volkisch, the Vekans, the Solcean zealots, all of them could attack innocent people at will.

Station by station an uprising spread. Political academics, black bloc anarchists, labor unionists, and even liberal democrats began to wrest political power from cowed ducal authorities. Protests, marches, riots, sabotage, the uprising encompassed every form of imaginable unrest. On a national level it was disorganized, but enough individual flashpoints burned all at once to cause a national effect. Police forces and the Bosporan Defense Forced had to overstretch themselves.

Tensions in the rest of the Empire marked a turning point in the Bosporan uprising. Rhinean aristocrats that fled to Sverland started to call for a Noble Alliance to form against the likes of the Volkisch and their industrial bourgeois allies, seeing them as the main rivals for power and the left as nascent and fragile. This had the effect that Bosporan nobles suddenly fled south to join this united front rather than fight in Bosporus where they were weak. It beheaded the ducal state.

Erich von Fueller’s march was stopped by the destruction of Vogelheim in his home state in the Palatinate. The pause of the Grand Western Fleet isolated the Bosporan Defense Forces from reinforcement. They began to face increasing mutiny on their ships and stations, as more and more forces defected to either the Volkisch, the Noble Alliance or the anarchist left in Bosporus.

Police became trapped in their stations with their uprisings, with no hope of reinforcement or heavy support. Uniforms started to come off. Slowly, but surely, there was nothing for them to fight for and nobody keep up the fight. No aristocrats to pay them, no officers to order them around, and increasingly militant crowds they could not hope to contain. The Uprising won the day.

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

The Duchy of Bosporus collapsed. That was the one fact they agreed on.

Living in that moment, the people of Bosporus had to decide what would replace it.

Individual stations created their own governments and institutions. Bosporus’ capital of Antioch declared itself a “Commune” hosting an alliance of anarchist street fighters and leftist academics. Various stations by popular vote became Republics, Workgroups, Socialist Unions. All of these microstates understood, however, the interconnected nature of life under the Ocean. They needed to trade goods and access specialized equipment and skills from other stations.

Ultimately, Antioch was chosen as the gathering place for representatives from the micro-states and the umbrella platform for Bosporan political activity became the “Bosporan Commune.” The Commune was declared to be an “Association” of independent peoples who recognized the need for broader cooperation. They sent multiple representatives to a “Popular Assembly” to draft guidelines and strike deals between each station. There were plenty of disagreements, particularly surrounding military matters, but a fear of the broader civil war tied the stations together.

Because of the civil war, having economic and social cooperation was not enough. The people of the Commune stations needed to pool their military power to defend their autonomy. Soon, individual ships and station forces organized and began to “freely associate” as a fleet while retaining their “political autonomy” as was the anarchist style at the time. These were collectively called the Popular Mobilization Forces. Their naval power fluctuated between 200 and 600 ships at any time, depending on who could be agreed to muster where, and for what cause.

Soon after their organization, these forces began their first campaign of the war.

There was a place southwest of Bosporus that connected Rhinea, Sverland and Skarsgaard. This junction was known as the Khaybar Mountain. What was now the “mountain” was once a massive island on the surface that fragmented and partially sunk, creating a landscape of high, rocky “walls” with a “pass” between. “Overflying” its jagged natural features could only be done in the photic zone at 200 meters depth. At this depth, Khaybar’s peaks teemed with Leviathans feasting on the rich environment of the island remnants. There was light, wildlife; a whole ecosystem. Deeper down, the Leviathan’s red blood and carcasses thickened the abyssal waters.

Navigating Khaybar allowed ships to bypass the borders of the other states. The ducal states and their merchant marines ignored Khaybar, however. The Imperial Navy considered it a “natural sanctuary.” Officially, nobody lived there, and ships should not attempt to go through it.

The people of Bosporus knew the official Imperial record to be a lie.

Khayber was a historical hotbed of attacks on ships. Someone was out there.

Those that survived such attacks spread rumors of a “Pirate Queen” and her enclave who ruled this area. There were those who believed this was a cover story for losing cargo or covering up mutinies or otherwise negligent behavior from shady merchants, corrupt Navy officers and mercenaries inventing tall tales to sell escort services. Others had confirmed the rumors firsthand, claiming to have made deals with the pirates in exchange for exotic goods or free passage.

In the civil war, Khaybar Mountain had a new importance for the anarchists.

PMF Scout ships delved into Khaybar for a deep passage to the south, hoping to make it to Campos or even the Union while bypassing the borders of the enemy states around them. Like many before them, these ships were lost in Khaybar without further contact. The PMF forces were busy defending the borders, so individual scout ships were all they could muster for the expedition.

This situation extended for weeks without resolution, unnerving the Commune forces.

Ultimately, a flotilla of “freely associating” anarchist ships organized independently to probe the Khaybar region for themselves. Unlike the PMF’s individual scout ships, they agreed to travel in a large group and to fight with organization. However, their intentions were outwardly peaceable and they wanted this to be known. That was the difference in their approach to the more strictly militarized PMF forces who expected and prepared for a fight, and broadcast that intention.

The so-called Free Ships hardened themselves for the fight but went to great lengths to avoid it. They bombarded the area with diplomatic signals. They sent out drones by the dozens. “We are the Bosporan Commune, and we wish to help you and work with you.” All over the Khaybar region any ship operating standard equipment would have heard their acoustic messages.

The Free Ships dared not go too far at first to avoid provocation. They were met only with eerie silence. Some of their drones were lost, mainly to the rough oceans and the creatures of the deep. However, the overwhelming majority of their drone fleet was untouched, broadcasting.

Several days passed without violence. Emboldened, communication attempts continued.

“My, what an interesting racket you’ve all made! Hold your positions. We will talk soon.”

Eventually, there was a response back, and this was all that was said at first. Instructions were given to the Free Ships for a proper communication. With trepidation, a laser signal was finally exchanged between anarchists and an old relay. Damaged as the relay was, they could not see much of a picture, but they did confirm a connection, and that there was a data transmission.

On that dark, crackly video feed they could barely make out a hooded figure in the static.

“My name is Majida al-Khaybari. I represent the people of Jabal Khaybar. We will allow one ship to approach whether with diplomats or soldiers. We don’t care who comes or what you bring with you as long as you follow our instructions. I am willing to talk with any of you.”

The Free Ships acknowledged Majida. This was the first positive step anyone had made.

Through a vote, one lead ship was elected from the Flotilla.

Elections decided the leadership of this one ship, and volunteers filled its ranks.

And so, the Eminent set off for the Khaybar pass.

It was a journey that tested the mettle and commitment of everyone involved.

Khaybar’s deep waters were darker than anything the Bosporans had ever seen. Every so often there was a dim glow from a creature or a colony of creatures with bioluminescence. As they delved deeper there were more bioluminescent corals and gas stalks and creatures, as if deliberately placed. Like gardens grown on rocky hillsides, at the bottoms of ravines and on sunken ships.

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

Carcasses of Leviathans speared into the ground as if totems shouting warning. Hulks of ships were anchored everywhere, many picked clean of weapons or armor. Every so often, the Bosporans thought they saw parties of workers in Diver suits picking metal from the wrecks. This was confirmed when they saw fresh wrecks and the timid people working on top of them.

Some of those ships had been Bosporan, reported missing weeks ago.

For the members of the free ships, these had been comrades.

On every one of the ships, there was a mark.

A half-moon with three slashes through it as if clawed by an animal.

“We shouldn’t be here. These people can’t be trusted. They’ve attacked us before.”

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

It was hard to keep discipline. The Khaybarians were not being especially welcoming.

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

“We can’t just turn around now without even trying to speak to anyone! We have to try to make peace with the Khaybarians! Our Commune will be at war forever, with the entire rest of the world, if we cannot reach out to others outside our stations and find common ground!”

His name was Silas Batyrov. Before the uprising, he had been a history graduate.

Part of Bosporus’ “Imbrianized,” educated middle class from one of its famous schools.

“Majida al-Khaybari is a traditional Shimii name. I couldn’t see ears or anything in her picture.”

He had been murmuring such things to himself, thinking about the history of Bosporus.

An incredible amount of violence had been done to the Shimii. They were deported from their stations, forced to change their names, forced into slavery. Their culture had been destroyed. More than anyone in Bosporus, they suffered from being intolerable to the ruling Imbrian culture.

Khaybar earned its fearsome reputation in the past twenty or thirty years.

Had these people been Shimii, attacking ships just to survive this entire time?

If that was the case, Batyrov felt a duty to help them join the rest of the Commune.

Near-unanimously, the crew of the Eminent named Batyrov the leader of the negotiating party for these reasons. Two other men, Shapur and Albescu, were to go with him. They were also students, who had participated in the same uprising as Batyrov, though the latter did not personally know them. However, they could at least get along together because of their similar origins.

Soon the anarchists neared the rocky pass through the middle of Khaybar.

Batyrov felt absolutely tiny when faced with the massive landform. An enormous cleave in the earth with stone rising higher than the eye could see on either side of it. They were 1500 meters deep and Khaybar’s mountainous peaks rose over a thousand meters on either side of them. Between the two halves was the pass, a five- or six-hundred-meter gap with flat, rocky faces on either side. Nowhere in Khaybar was the water murkier than it was around the pass, rusty-red with biomass from dead Leviathans. Whether they had fallen from above or been killed by the people of Khaybar, Batyrov did not know. He assumed both could be true, explaining the volume of red.

There was a messy acoustic message from Khaybar that led to another messy laser call.

As-salamu alaykum. It’s me again.” Batyrov could tell it was Majida, though she failed to introduce herself. She sounded almost chipper. Maybe it was the connection noise. “I am waiting for you in the caves. We have a multi-service dock at depth 1800. Your ship should just about be able to handle it. Inshallah we will meet soon and you will not explode due to the pressure.”

The Eminent was a frigate, an old Imperial Marder class that had defected in the uprisings. They had seen other relatively Frigate-size ships floating around the mountain in varying degrees of readiness, and had the seen the wrecks of many other Frigate-size ships, so more than likely, it was true that the Khaybarians had Frigate docks. That they were set into the rock was not terribly surprising as there were stations and arcologies grafted onto landforms all over the Empire.

Those docks and ships did lead Batyrov to reconsider what the Pirates were capable of.

Descending down to the seafloor at the base of the pass, the Bosporans found a hatch opening directly beneath them. There was no movement of water, as the hatch was already flooded. A massive tunnel extended below the surface aperture. They followed the rocky passage under the mountain and up into an absurdly massive moonpool. A small flotilla was housed and serviced in the rocky depths of this flooded passage. Batyrov was unsure of how they would get out, however, because ships did not have upper hatches. Moonpools had fallen quite out of use by the Empire.

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

A pair of labor divers dropped down from above and attached a chute to their frigate.

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

The Bosporans were almost afraid of opening their ship up to the chutes to disembark Batyrov and his men. Batyrov trusted the Khaybarians, and when he had the airlock to the chute opened, he found a completely pressurized, straightforward walk out to a familiar style of metal bulkhead door. On their side, the Khaybarians opened the door and met him without incident.

Finally, Batyrov got to meet with his counterparts after all this time.

There was a figure in a black hood at the center of a small party of unarmed folk. Everyone but that central figure instead wore dusty grey or beige hoods and synthetic coats and pants. They wore featureless, dusty white masks with subtle eyeholes. All of their hoods had spaces for their cat-like ears. Either they all made that style choice together or they were all Shimii as Batyrov had assumed.

That central hooded figure stepped forward to greet the party from Bosporus.

“I did not prepare a big welcoming speech. Do you have one?”

“I’m afraid not. Let’s just introduce ourselves.” Batyrov said, smiling at her.

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

Batyrov got to see the leader of the Khaybarian Pirates. She pulled down her hood.

“Majida al-Khaybari. Warlord of the ummah of Jabal Khaybar.”

“I am Silas Batyrov. I represent the interests of the people of Bosporus.”

“Hah! Well, I suppose I am not one of them by your definition.”

They briefly shook hands. She had a very strong grip.

She was a Shimii, without a doubt. Her ears and tail proved this immediately.

For a brutal “Pirate Queen” she had an outward appearance gentler and more collected than Batyrov expected. Her hair was a captivating color, like a dusty silver, that fell in messy waves cut just over the shoulder. She had an interesting pale skin complexion, like an off-brown grey, that was uncommon to her ethnicity. Her eyes were a very dark color. Her face seemed untroubled by the elements, with a gentle nose and soft lips and cheekbones. She was smiling softly at the anarchists.

Her figure was quite lithe and lean, not necessarily skinny, but neither too tall nor too broad. Her form of dress was humble. Beneath her synthetic hood she wore a weathered green coat and pants with military-style boots. Her garments looked simply made and very little decorated. Her only piece of jewelry or filigree was a necklace she wore, which had the Khaybarians symbol. That half-moon cut through by three claw marks. It had been cast in armor steel, rough and unpolished.

Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.

One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.

Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.

Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.

“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.

Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”

Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.

“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.

Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.

“Are you a Pelagis?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.

“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”

Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.

Batyrov was sure she must have been a Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.

He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.

“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”

Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.

Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.

Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.

“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”

The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.

Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.

Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.

No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”

Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.

Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.

He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.

Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.

At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”

“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”

Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”

“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”

“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”

Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.

Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.

He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.

Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.

“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”

Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.

“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.

He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.

A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.

He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.

It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.

“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”

Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.

It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.

Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.

“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”

She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.

“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”

“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.

“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.

“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”

“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”

Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.

“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”

“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.

Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.

“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”

“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.

In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.

He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.

“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.

“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”

Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”

“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”

He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.

“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.

“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.

Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”

“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”

“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”

Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.

“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.

“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.

It did not work too well.

“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”

Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.

“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”

They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.

Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.

There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.

Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.

The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.

“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.

As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.

They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.

Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.

“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.

“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.

“Look over there.”

Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.

Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.

On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.

Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.

“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.

He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.

Majida gave him a strange look.

Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.

“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”

She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.

He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.

This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.

There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.

Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.

She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.

Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”

The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.

By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.

Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.

Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.

When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.

In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.

“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.

“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.

“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”

Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.

“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”

“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”

From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.

Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.

Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.

Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.

“Don’t do that.”

He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.

“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”

“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.

“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.

She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.

Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.

Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.

Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.

Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.

After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.

“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”

Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.

All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.

“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”

The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.

“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.

“I–”

“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.

Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”

“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”

“Of course.” Majida replied.

“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”

Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”

And so, the Bosporans ate.

Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.

“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.

“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.

“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.

“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”

Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”

Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.

“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”

 Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.

“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.

“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.

While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.

However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.

“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.

All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”

She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.

“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.

“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”

“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.

“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”

Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.

The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.

Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.

“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.

“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”

“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”

Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


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Arc 1 Intermissions [I.5]

Content warning: This story contains themes of suicide and mental illness.

The Martyr

Polity: Duchy of Buren

Naval strength: 500 ships (National Front of Buren), plus Irregulars

There would have been war in Buren even if the Emperor had survived to see it.

Throughout the dark, deep, rocky state of Buren, which straddled the corrupted continent once known as “Nobilis” on three sides, a cry had sounded for generations. It sounded in the mines where deadly Agarthicite could claim the lives of hundreds of workers in an instant. It sounded quietly in the bunks of rank-and-file sailors who dreamt of the legends their grandparents told them about the free nation that they once were. It sounded in the factories that made weapons and goods for the consumption of the rich in Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the rest of the Imperial heartland. It was the cry of the disposessed and the cry of quietly suffering.

“Buren shall be free again!” 

A similar cry sounded from the halls of the ducal palace.

“The Nationalists have come to set Buren free!”

Though it was a word that inspired terror in the left across the Ocean, they adopted it.

“Nationalist” made sense to the Bureni folk. Their goal was to become a nation again.

Their freedom fighters named themselves the “National Front of Buren.”

“Buren shall be free again!”

Automatic bursts from Volker rifles muffled but could not silence their cries.

Inside the flat, square station of Lithopolis, the LCD paneled false sky intercut with gray static bands as power fluctuated suddenly. A powerful explosion rocked the station as the waters around it were heavily disturbed. A Koenig-class Dreadnought of the Bureni Defense Forces, struck by multiple torpedoes, sank and smashed into the seafloor around the base of the pillar, setting off a second series of shocks. For a moment, the ground forces that had penetrated the station stumbled, holding on to whatever they could grab for support.

“Have we captured an entry point?”

Radio coverage was spotty as the Diver transitioned from the water to the port interior.

“Yes, commander! You can come up!”

A pair of nationalist Divers arrived through the captured lower port and quickly made their way up into the city through cargo elevators. Blood and corpses and the detritus of ruined divers and weapon emplacements met them as they went. There had been a hellish battle for those elevators, but they were now being held by the nationalists. Both Divers stepped onto the platform.

“Are you ready, Sophia? I have your back, so let’s put a beautiful wax seal on this coup.”

“Irene. If I died today, could you continue the fight without me?”

Neither pilot could see the other’s face, they were moving too quicky and had not established a laser call between their cockpits. But those dire words and their reaction were clear enough from the emotion in both tones of voice. One was exhausted, resigned; and the other was emotional, highly emotional, but trying her best not to let it overcome her as she spoke.

“There is no way in hell you would die here, Sophia. Not when we made it this far.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Sophia was sorry for the task she had made herself carry out.

“Nothing.”

She could not explain to her companion the storm of emotions rolling in her mind.

All she could hope for was that Irene would not be there at the end.

Sophia put on the mask that befit the esteemed commander of the Nationalist Fleet.

Her personal conflicts had to remain hidden. She was walking into a battlefield.

As the elevator rose to its destination the sounds of gunfire intensified. Once the Divers were lifted up into the station proper, they first thing they saw was smoke. There were pits all over the false turf that made the palace look like a rural countryside. Buildings had taken shell blows and half-collapsed into rubble, or been hollowed out by fires. Sophia hoped the palace staff had been able to evacuate. Everywhere she turned, the results of the fight were terribly brutal.

Sophia switched her communications to a radio frequency and called the infantry liaison.

“Command has arrived at the front. I need a situation report.”

“Everything is in place for the final push, Commander! We’re awaiting your orders!”

Inside the cockpit of a Reschold-Kolt license-produced Panzer unit now appearing on the front lines, was the commander of the main nationalist force, Sophia Tzanavaras. All of her comrades had chosen her to lead the attack on Lithopolis, and despite her misgivings, she accepted the responsibility. She arrived at a mustering point on the outer edge of the capitol center, held by a mix of militiamen, riot-armored troops and a few pilots who constituted the first boarding party.

“Were the civilians able to evacuate?” Sophia asked.

“We didn’t see any civvies ma’am, but the port was in disarray. I think a lot of people fled really suddenly. Even the security forces were in chaos. It’s just us and the palace guards now.”

Lithopolis consisted of an outer ring of tenement habitation for service workers and servants surrounding the vast ducal estate. After invading the dock and taking the cargo elevators, the Nationalist troops mustered with the large tenement buildings between themselves and the firing lines from the ducal grounds. Shells and periodic rifle fire flew in between and over the buildings as if to remind the nationalists that there were enemies watching them approach.

 Predominantly flat, green terrain surrounded the palace, dotted with buildings. The ducal estate encompassed private farmland, a small pond, a horse track, a gymnasium, and the palace itself in the middle ring. Its buildings were all white, pillared, artistic architecture for the pleasure of the nobles. Through Sophia’s eyes, what she saw was not the beautiful ducal parcels but a complex battlefield with multiple terrain features that was nonetheless quite open to assault.

Outside Lithopolis, the waters sang with the eerie sound of ordnance. The Nationalist fleet had the remnants of the Bureni Defense Forces in the midst of a rout. Sophia had started her rebellion with her own kampfgruppe of defected naval forces and some militias on converted civilian ships or stolen navy ships. Now through the defection of her countrymen and vast mutinies against the officer class, her naval troops outnumbered those of the Duke. Her wish was to provoke further defections, and enhance her own numbers. That was all that prevented her from ordering the outright slaughter of the Defense Forces. Losing the BDF’s leading dreadnought was a pity.

“I’m going through our options. Is this everybody?” Sophia asked.

On the auxiliary video screen of her Panzer, Sophia spoke with a young man, who looked barely old enough to drink, sitting in front of an unfolded communicator box that was sending an encrypted laser video to her mecha. She could also see him in the camera feeds. He was dressed in riot armor. On the floor near him there was a ballistic shield, stained dark brown with blood, as well as an unloaded jet lance. There were six other riot-armored men and women in the mustering point geared up with shields, rifles, jet lances, vibro-swords, and about a half-dozen shoulder-fired, portable missile tubes. Everyone had blood on them, either on their weapons or their armor.

“The boarding party got hit hard ma’am. The enemy’s Divers and ours took each other out almost immediately inside the dock. Then their riot troops came out and set up machine guns and grenade launchers. They tried to block us out of the cargo elevator. We had them outnumbered but they were really entrenched. When the naval battle swung in our favor, they retreated into the sanctum. We weren’t in any good shape to stop them, so we just held onto the elevators. I’m sorry.”

“You all fought valiantly. Stand tall. Buren will commemorate all of your names.”

Around the boy there were also a few dozen militiamen equipped with nothing but worker coverall coats worn over bodysuits for armor. They had surplus rifles loaded with frangible spike ammo to prevent them from damaging sensitive gear inside the station corridors and in the city.

Station fighting was brutal. Layouts were tight and favored the defender as long as they had gear and supplies. Against an enemy force with armor, shields and lethal weapons holding a natural chokepoint in any ordinary station layout, the invading force was bound to suffer losses. Despite the cost in blood, they had been able to come this far. Any armor would break with enough bullets. Even if it took a few squadrons, Sophia and her forces had managed to break through.

Ordinary people could fight the insurmountable juggernaut of the Empire. Any defense could be broken, any stolen land taken back. The history of the Union had taught her as much. In prison, she had found hope in the histories of the Union’s rebellion. It was this hope that led her to join Buren’s own rebellion. For atonement, she sacrificed all of herself that she could and led numerous battles to get here. Despite the odds, they had made it to the heart of Buren’s darkness.

For the bloodletting to end definitively she had to kill the people hiding at the center of this ring.

To atone for having supported the aristocrats, she told herself she had to be the one to slaughter them.

“We could press the assault with what we have, or wait to muster more troops.”

Sophia saw a new feed appear on one of her monitors and address her. This was the interior of the other Diver cockpit. A young woman gave her a gentle smile — an unlikely companion for an unlikely commander. Everything that surrounded them had been a game of pure chance.

“If we give them a chance to regroup, they’ll cost more lives to dislodge.” Sophia replied. “We need to keep the pressure on them, but we might not need the infantry to commit themselves to an assault. I can punch a hole through to the palace myself, if I could get a distraction.”

“You have an army, Sophia. I’m prepared to fight too. I won’t let you martyr yourself.”

On the screen was the face of her adjutant, Irene Dimitros, piloting a Jagd model Diver.

Irene was the only other member of Sophia’s own fireteam.

“It’s not like that.” Sophia said. She stammered, just a bit. “It’s just my responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bear that responsibility alone! Sophia, I’m always at your side!”

Irene looked concerned. Sophia shook her head.

“Irene, I think it would just be better, for less of us to be at the palace in the final hour.”

Her companion’s eyes drew wide. She understood what Sophia meant, and deferred to her.

Sophia turned away from Irene and gave her orders to the infantry over encrypted radio.

“We’ll need coordination to pull this off. On my signal, we will deploy chaff and colored gas to cover the left flank and open fire on the guard compound. I want you to fire on the move but not launch an assault. Stay mobile, commit to nothing, and leave your options open. I need the armored troops to take responsibility for our unarmored comrades. Lieutenant Dimitros and I will launch our own attack after yours. Once we have disabled their fire support, I’ll throw a flare. When you see that flare, then, and only then, will you commit all forces to assault. Understood?”

She waited for acknowledgment, and all the squadron members saluted her Diver.

“Break open a quick ration and catch your breath. We move out in 10 minutes!”

There was a flurry of activity around Sophia’s Diver. Men and women dug into their rations, checked their equipment, stood up from the walls they had been sitting against. Some took off their helmets to rearrange their hair. Riflemen took turns laying down suppressing fire on the sanctum from around the tenement walls, to keep the enemy entertained while everyone prepared.

Sophia took a bite of a seaweed stick and drank down an energy gel as quickly as she could.

“We can do this, Sophia.” Irene said. “In fact, this will be the easy part.”

Irene was right. There would be more battles after this for the National Front of Buren.

For them— but maybe not for her. She was no longer sure.

When the ten minutes were up, her forces started moving again with coordination. From the tenements, the nationalist squadrons advanced northeast around the left flank of the palace defenders, moving through the sparse urban environment on Lithopolis’ outer ring. They employed whatever cover they could find to mask their movements, from abandoned buildings to generator control boxes, wireless towers and discarded monorail cars, to concrete guardrails and vacant guard outposts. In order to sustain the nationalist’s deception, Sophia and Irene moved their Divers into position near the edge of the tenements, where their squadrons had once been. They fired their assault rifles around the blind corners created by the buildings, causing small blasts to go off on the broad green separating them from the palace. Their enemy easily took notice of this activity.

In response, gunfire from heavy machine guns and light explosives fired by stationary tube launchers soared in between the tenement buildings and churned up the fake turf in a series of volleys. Irene and Sophia hid quickly and avoided the retaliation. Judging by the direction of fire, Sophia began to plot how she would move when the time came, and passed the data to Irene. Her enemy’s attention remained squarely on the center, and that was what Sophia wanted for now.

Soon her squadrons had moved beyond her ability to follow with her own sight, but she could track their progress and view their surroundings via a direct link to a camera drone employed by the teams. Inside the station, she had access to reliable, fast wireless data transfer. It was the kind of boon that was easy to forget for soldiers trained to fight in the ocean, disconnected from most communications. Through the eyes of her drone, she watched as her team got into position.

Colored smoke crept across the open field on the eastern half of the palace ground.

Smoke and pops of gray anti-sensor chaff, like glittering trails falling from the sky.

Shoulder-fired missiles soared out of the clouds and crashed into the guard compound.

Fire engulfed several buildings, all of which had been abandoned. No guards were hit.

But the message being sent was clear. An assault was coming from the left flank.

Withering gunfire erupted from defensive positions in the guard compound and the palace farther behind it. Grenades and missiles hurtled back across the field and smashed into the shops, streets and the monorail station from which the nationalist missiles had come from. Massed rifle and machine gun fire from both infantry weapons and a few Volker class Divers raked the cloud of colored smoke. Because of the chaff, their instruments could not penetrate the smokescreen.

The defenders of the palace assumed the nationalists were assaulting the guard compound.

Meanwhile, the nationalists did not tarry in the monorail station or any of the shops.

They were constantly on the move, and more colored gas and chaff covered them.

It covered where they had been, and where they were going, blanketing the entire east.

Their enemy could not tell a direction for the assault except, broadly, “the left flank.”

All of the gunfire that had once massed against the southern, central approach, turned away to the east.

Her enemy had fully redeployed their defenses to what they assumed was the new axis of attack.

“Irene, now’s our chance! Stick close to me!”

Sophia and Irene charged from the tenement buildings out into the field.

The Panzer was heavy, but its chassis developed a lot of power, and its gait allowed Sophia to advance faster than a human could run across the estate grounds. Meanwhile the Jagd was lighter and had a more complex chassis that flowed somewhat easily through the air. Both pilots opened their turbines, sucking in air that kept them in balance as they ran. In the short term this would damage the turbines, which were designed to accelerate cold water rather than warm air, but it supported their charge overland.

Lithopolis was not a fortress. It was not designed as a defensible position. Even the guard compound was just a collection of barracks buildings and training grounds meant to house the guards rather than defend the palace. Though built on a hill, the palace was surrounded by pretty gardens and tended green fields, by tracks and hunting ground and a pond, not by trenches and gun turrets. Even the placement of building cover was purely incidental. There were no defensive walls, no fences, no barbed wire, nothing to stop them.

Weapon emplacements had been set up on the broad, semi-circular portico façade of the palace, and hidden in the second story windows. Divers stood atop the hill, shooting from their vantage down to the green below. Every element of the defense was exposed, and it was only their commanding position that allowed them to disrupt attacks effectively. There was nothing between Sophia’s charge and the enemy in front of her except the distance it took to get near them.

And now they were not even looking her way. All their weapons were turned east.

Once the enemy recognized their approach, it was too late to split their fire.

Sophia charged up the hill as an enemy Volker half-turned and fired its assault rifle.

Chunks of her armor went flying but the Panzer was built sturdy enough for rifle fire and could not be stopped so easily.

Sophia swung her vibro-sword and cleaved an enormous dent into the rotund chassis.

Briefly exposed to the vibrating edge of the blade, the pilot inside collapsed in agony.

From behind Sophia, a pair of jet anchors soared overhead and smashed through two individual windows in the second story of the palace. Each of the ornate bowed windows disgorged a team of men and their tripod missile launcher, crushed or in pieces from the force of the blow and the jets, blade and cables on the anchors — whichever part made contact was enough to kill.

Irene retracted the anchors and climbed up the stone steps to the portico.

Walking forward through small arms fire, she retaliated with devastating bursts of 20 mm explosive bullets from the shoulder guns on her Jagd. Each snapping blast sent casing fragments and chunks of colonnades into the ranks of the infantry. There were scores of the dead, hunkered down where they could be buried in rubble or blown apart as their own weapons detonated. Sensing the plight of the infantry, a second Volker turned from the guard compound and ran to the portico, only to meet an immediate end as Sophia easily put dozens of assault rifle rounds upon it before it could even heft its gun. It fell backward, oozing lubricants, fuel, battery acid and the blood of the pilot through innumerable penetrations in its armor.

Sophia reloaded. There was not much of the defense now left.

She charged around the eastern wall of the palace, coming to face the colored smoke far in the distance. From the shoulder of her mecha, she launched a flare that sailed up into the sky, and burst in a pattern of red and green colors that signaled the infantry to assault. She remained still only long enough to confirm the movement of people past the dying chaff clouds, before turning her assault rifle on the palace itself.

She lifted the rifle one-handed and took aim with it.

Facing the upper stories, she pressed the trigger down and turned her gun systematically from one window to another, putting three rounds into each. Explosions rocked the entire top floor of the palace, one room at a time in turn, until Sophia’s magazine emptied. Glass, concrete and brick expulsed from the building bounced off the pitted armor of her Panzer suit in a rain of debris. Anyone in those rooms would be reduced to pieces.

Once her computer could detect no further hostile activity, she had the Panzer bow down.

Sophia exited the suit, jumping down from the cockpit, between her sword and her gun.

She took off her helmet, freeing her voluminous, sweat-soaked blond hair. Her skin was clammy, and her golden eyes teared up when exposed to unfiltered light and air. She had been fighting for so long. It almost felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air in weeks. She had nothing but her pilot suit covering her, and even so Lithopolis felt oppressively hot and damp.

Sophia recovered her senses quickly. Her fingers quivered with the knowledge of what she would do. Catching her breath, she produced her sidearm and ran heedlessly into the palace.

She found herself stepping over all manner of broken human remains, spreading pools of blood and molten fat from bodies caught in explosives or set ablaze when their weapon emplacements detonated on them. Irene had completely ruined the place before she moved on from the portico. No glass stood unshattered, every door was off its hinges, every tile cracked by shrapnel if not direct explosive trauma. Sophia rushed through the front hall, a grotesque corridor of dead and dying soldiers. She kicked open the double doors into the inner sanctum of the palace. Imposing as they were, they were not designed to lock securely.

Inside the high-walled, gold and pearlescent white inner sanctum was a shrine to Solceanos, the great sun-deity depicted as a man with a burning halo and surrounded in rays of smoke and fire. At the base of this being, as if he were looking down on them in their hour of desperation, were two figures huddled together. Sophia recognized both, dressed in embroidered silk cloth, bedecked with jewelry, their beauty well contrived even in this hour of wrath, even surrounded by blood and bullets. That was the way of the aristocracy.

Her features twisted with anger at the sight of the Duke and his daughter.

“Duke Pascheladis!” Sophia said. “Stand up! Own up to your sins and face me!”

It was not the Duke who stood first. His daughter Nereida approached Sophia.

“Please, have some humanity! You cannot do this! Look at father, look at what has–”

Nereida didn’t recognize her. Sophia retrained her aim and fired a single round.

As soon as she stood, Nereida fell aside with a hole the width of a finger through her brow.

There was no emotion in Sophia’s eyes. Nereida meant nothing to her anymore.

“Stand up, Pascheladis!” Sophia shouted, spitting fury at the villain before her.

There was no way that this man would stand up to her. She soon recognized this.

On the floor, the Duke was at his most wretched.

Shaking, teeth chattering in the grip of madness. He could not say a word to her. He would not even make eye contact. It was as if he was trying to crawl endlessly against an invisible wall. He scratched at the base of the statue until his fingers had gone purple and red. He wept, and shouted. It was as if the terror of the palace coming under attack had fully robbed him of his wits. Had he ever shown such frailty before this?

Nereida had been tending to him because he had completely broken down.

Sophia’s eye twitched. Her heart beat faster and faster. Her head felt red-hot with anger.

At the sight of the panicking, crying, incoherent Duke, whom she had once respected.

Whom she had once followed as honorably as she could.

“Look at you.”

She turned her pistol on him. He continued to clutch the statue for no reason at all.

Was he begging Solceanos for forgiveness?

It was not he who needed such forgiveness. Forgiveness was for those who would live.

“Look at you squirming there. Do you know even know why you will die? You made me think that it was righteous to beat down hungry, desperate men. To gas crowds with women and children. To send to the deepest holes of the earth people whom you gave no choice but to steal and kill to live. How could I ever believe this? I’m the one here who must have been insane. I must have been insane to follow your orders.”

She walked up to him, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the statue.

There was no catharsis in it. She could torture him all day and feel nothing from it.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you can afford to lose your wits like this and I can’t.”

Surgically, without emotion, she put a single round through the back of his skull.

Duke Pascheladis’ head crashed against the statue plaque, smearing it with blood.

Sophia stared at the revolting sight of the corpse, unable to tear herself away.

In her mind, this moment had gone very differently.

Filled with passionate eloquence Sophia would have confronted the Duke about her transformation. She would explain the clarity she gained from disobeying her orders, from imprisonment, from suffering torture and being made an example of. She would describe to him the power she had found in her comrades, in their rebellion and the leftist militancy that turned so many to her side. He would have argued back that she was betraying her duty, betraying the honor of her position as a soldier, as an inquisitor, as a ducal guard. He would say that if she believed so strongly in the rantings of Mordecai, then she had to die as well!

Sophia would say to him, that she was prepared to meet him in hell right away.

None of this happened in reality. None of it could ever happen.

How long had the Duke been driven into madness? Was this entire battle so pointless?

Sophia was robbed of her revenge and she was robbed of a chance to convince herself of her own atonement.

Pascheladis had to die. But to Sophia, he had to die struggling, cursing her and clinging to his life.

She wanted to be able to condemn him. To watch his eyes water as he begged her for mercy.

Sophia looked down at the weapon with which she had ended the Pascheladis dukedom.

Even if she had not told him as such, she was prepared to meet him in hell.

“I’ve hurt too many people. Innocent people without hope. I’m no better than those two.”

She lifted the pistol to her own head.

She felt her hands shake, her blood run cold. She started to apply pressure to the trigger.

In the middle of that empty sanctum, she would die.

“I’m as guilty as these bastards. I hope– I hope she’ll forgive me–”

“No! Sophia, please, oh my god, please stop!”

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sophia turned around, the barrel of the pistol warm against her skin. She saw a woman her age in a matching pilot suit come running into the sanctum. Without her helmet, she was easy to identify. Irene had such a dignified face, the face of a truly noble soul, expressive, strikingly beautiful, with bright orange eyes and smooth, orderly brown hair, cut to the neck and curling inward.

Seeing Irene weep at the sight of Sophia’s decision was touching to her.

They were unlikely partners, unlikely allies. So much had to happen for them to meet.

She wished so strongly that Irene had not been there. That she would have just found a corpse.

“This is why you wanted to be alone? Sophia, you don’t have to do this!” Irene pleaded.

“I can’t bear to keep lying to myself. My hands are full of innocent blood.” Sophia said.

Irene’s face twisted with fear and pain. “You were a kid! You didn’t know anything!”

“I was old enough! I believed in what I was doing. I caused so much suffering.”

Sophia smiled bitterly. To think they were having an argument like this one last time.

“You reformed! You went to prison for standing against the government! You changed!”

“Changing does not absolve me of what I did. It only made me realize how horrible it was.”

“Quit running away then!” Irene shouted. “Live so you can take responsibility for yourself!”

Irene stomped her foot. Her cries grew more desperate through a flood of helpless tears.

“We chose you, Sophia! Out of everyone, we still chose to follow you! We believe in you!”

“I had military skills, respectability within the officer corps, and access. I was a good tool to radicalize the ducal navy in this time of crisis.” Sophia said. “Irene I can’t in good conscience volunteer to lead the people of Buren. I was a collaborator in their suffering and I will never be able to live that down.”

Her companion was starting to falter, to fall to helplessness. Irene hugged herself, shaking.

Through quivering lips, she began to mutter words that hit Sophia as hard as any bullet.

“Sophia, if I you told that– if I told you that all this time, I had feelings for–”

Sophia felt her heart sink and shouted back. “Please don’t say it! Irene, please! Not here!”

Those would have been the most painful last words she could have possibly heard.

“Please put that gun down! If you want to atone, then do so in life! Atone by my side!”

Irene stepped forward suddenly, holding out her hand, her eyes fixed on Sophia’s own.

Sophia was startled, but she was restrained enough not to pull the trigger out of fear. She thought for a second to threaten to shoot, but she was her own hostage. Her voice caught in her throat, and she could not move as Irene slowly approached her. Their eyes were fixed on one another.

“Give me the gun. Please, Sophia. I will help you; I will do anything for you.”

Irene got so close Sophia could smell the plastic scent of her suit, and the sweat in her hair.

Her hands reached up to Sophia’s own and touched her.

At first Sophia resisted. She did not allow the barrel to be brought down from her head.

Their gazes were locked together with such intensity. Sophia could not shut her eyes.

Irene persisted, tugging gently on Sophia’s hand.

Slowly, the barrel of the gun lifted off from Sophia’s skin.

Her companion turned the gun toward the ground and finally took it from her hand.

Sophia felt all the blood drain from her face. An overwhelming sense of shame overcame her. Like ice water dumped over her head. She wanted to fall to the floor, but Irene wrapped her arms around her.

Shorter by several centimeters, her face came rest against Sophia’s chest.

Sophia could not return her embrace. She felt so unworthy, and laid so low. Everything was supposed to end in this sanctum. There was not supposed to be another day for her; for the Sophia Tzanavaras who had gone from guarding this palace, to being the revolutionary seizing it.

“I never understood how much you were suffering.” Irene said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Irene, I– I don’t deserve this.” Sophia said weakly. She could not protest it much more.

Held in the arms of her faithful companion, and bearing the hopes of so many people, who saw her as a hero who was saving Buren from the evil aristocrats, Sophia could not conceive of how she would move forward from this moment. She felt as if her legs could never move again.

Despite everything, Irene was there supporting her. Sophia could not explain it.

Somehow, her legs would move again. There would be another day in her life.

Shaken by the knowledge that it could have all ended in that sanctum.

And bearing the uncertainty of a life she did not plan to lead.

In that sense, Sophia was just like Buren itself.

Having her past life torn to pieces in front of her eyes. Rediscovering herself as her ideas of justice were completely transformed. Throwing herself into battle after battle to defer the problem of mending her many wounds in a time of peace. Treading blindly to an uncertain future that was full of enemies and difficult questions about herself. What her role would be, how people viewed her, how she could protect their revolution. As much as she hated and feared the thought of living with the pain she caused and the pain she felt, Sophia Tzanavaras was Buren in flesh, and like Buren, her history would not end so simply.


“She could not do it after all. Well, I’m glad. It would’ve been a huge downer.”

Sophia and Irene wept into each other’s chests while a certain busybody peered from afar. Sitting above the Solceanos monument, her hands behind her head, giving her sore body a breather after a long day. She was glad that she did not get out of bed this morning to witness a suicide. That would have wrecked her day.

From a pouch in the ballistic vest worn over her double-layered tactical bodysuit, the spy produced a portable radio and tuned it to a special nationalist frequency. She put the receiver up to her red lips and spoke gently, so that her physical voice would not be overhead in the sanctum below.

“Commander Tzanavaras, it’s me. I apologize for going dark. I infiltrated the palace.”

She played with a lock of graying brown hair as Sophia, far below and unaware of her current position, took notice of the radio call. As soon as she spoke, she sent that tender moment between Commander and Adjutant into a sudden anxiety. Sophia scrambled to take the call by tapping her earpiece, and looked to Irene for support, who simply nodded to her in sympathy and stood by her side to support her. How touching.

“This is Tzanavaras.” Sophia said. She had done a magnificent job at code switching out from a vulnerable, broken-hearted girl’s weeping voice to the imperious, commanding voice they all knew and followed. “Daksha Kansal. Your support has been invaluable. Were you successful? Is everything clear on your end?”

The spy rolled her eyes a little. She should have never trusted this kid enough to have her name.

Even if it was a cheap and easy way to get her trust.

“It’s all clear. I prevented them from destroying any data or locking down the systems, so feel free to send your engineers to the control center. The security forces routed easily due to rumors that the Duke had gone mad and hid in the sanctum to die. Only the zealots stood and fought. Judging by the ruckus I heard, I think you can safely call this your win. On a related note: don’t call me Daksha Kansal anymore, alright Sophia?”

Below, Sophia started pacing out of the sanctum, with Irene in tow. Her movements seemed mechanical, as if a bit lost on how she should be putting one foot in front of the other. She was clearly still shaken. “What should I call you? You are a proletarian hero and founder of the Union. We honor your name quite highly.”

“That’s precisely why you should all forget about that name in the future. We don’t want Buren to live in the shadow of the Union’s deeds — you won’t inspire confidence just by relying on my name. Call me Ganges instead. But anyway, we’ll talk in person soon, Tzanavaras. I’ve got good news from down South.”

“Very well, Ganges. I look forward to our meeting, then.”

Atop the Solceanos monument, Ganges shut the radio antennae and laid back, sighing.

For a moment, she waited for Sophia and Irene to leave the sanctum.

Then she lifted her hand up to the roof.

There was a red glow in her eyes that she could feel as a gentle heat, as she pulled open a trapdoor on the roof from afar. Ganges stood up on the statue, and withdrew her hookshot. She would make her escape soon.

Her body ached in various places. Twenty years had passed since the Union fought off the Empire.

To think rather than lounging in house arrest like Ahwalia, she was still running around like this.

The things I do for my treasured students. She thought. I hope those two appreciate it.

It wasn’t like she hated her position entirely, however.

In fact, she felt privileged, whenever she closed her eyes and felt the wave spreading across the Oceans.

“Being called Ganges again sure makes me feel something.”

Once again, she was part of that revolutionary wave that would change everything.


Hours after the assault on Lithopolis, Bureni stations across the Duchy received word from the nationalists which then spread to the common people. Crowds formed in the parks and squares of several stations, with some crowds celebrating the fall of the ducal government and confronting dissenters against the nationalist cause. Station authorities were threatened to swear their loyalty to the Nationalists and to avoid retaliatory actions. Police forces initially organized to suppress pro-nationalist sentiments, but the total rout of the BDF and the approach of the new People’s Defense Corps fleets forced the surrender of station security forces.

Across the duchy, industrial workers overthrew their bosses, backed by nationalists, and took over the mining and refining of agarthicite and other products. Private transport companies in the state were blockaded by the nationalists and their ships confiscated and nationalized. There would be no more exporting of Bureni wealth to the rest of the Empire. Within days, the state had closed its borders, and one by one, its stations came under the control of the National Front, either peacefully or surrounded by nationalist ships.

Once the National Front could credibly claim to control all organs of state, there was a broadcast across all station monitors from Lithopolis. Inside a Sanctum that once housed an altar to Solceanos, now there was a simple podium where one woman addressed the nation. She dressed in an ornate dark-purple ceremonial military uniform that harkened back to the uniforms of the previous Kingdom of Buren, before annexation by the Empire. There was no mistaking her for a simple functionary or spokeswoman. She was tall, with strong shoulders and long, lean limbs, and a bountiful head of golden hair atop which rested a military beret. Her eyes were as golden as her hair; her pearl-olive skin was done up professionally, as were her lightly red lips.

“My beloved people of Buren! Our country is free!”

This was the beginning of her declaration. Everyone watching felt their heart soar at those words.

“For too long, we Burenis suffered under the tyranny of the ducal state, which turned countryman against countryman, destroyed our identity and history, and made us slaves to the Imbrian Empire! Duke Pascheladis and the ducal court have been broken by the hand of the National Front of Buren. We fought for so long to get to this day, and the fighting is not yet over. But today, my people, the wave of revolution which began in the Union twenty years ago has reached us here in Buren. Konstantin von Fueller, tyrant of the Imbrian ocean, is dead, and his Empire has no power over us anymore. We Burenis are now free to forge our own destinies.”

On every screen in Buren, that woman’s passionate words inspired crowds to roar and cheer.

With the weight of history bearing down on her shoulders, she declared her challenge against fate.

“My name is Sophia Tzanavaras! With your mandate, I have taken up the mantle of Supreme Marshal of the National Front of Buren, to tirelessly protect our revolution! To protect the rights and dignity of all workers, the peace and security of the common folk, and the autonomy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren!”

At this point, the camera zoomed out just enough for the people watching to see two Union Streloks appear, unarmed, and kneel at Sophia’s sides. For Imperial citizens, the Strelok’s silhouette was often propaganda for an evil enemy. To see them kneeling around Sophia displayed some degree of martial prowess to the viewers.

“In the coming months, there will be many challenges to our cause, but together, we will overcome anything! We will build upon our history of brave warriors, and the teachings of modern revolution, and triumph!”

When Sophia’s face finally disappeared from the screens, the people watching were already thinking of themselves as the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren, whether they were optimistic of its future or not.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.5]

This chapter contains explicit consensual sexual content and one flagrant violation of personal boundaries.

At one curious point in Elena’s prosaic evening, Gertrude herself became a hot topic.

“Oh, yes, I am that Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg. Yes, I’m part of internal security.”

She began answering questions fielded at her, and everyone suddenly became interested.

Elena thought it was no surprise Gertrude could become a center of attention herself. After all, she was tall, handsome, and had a variety of talents. And also she was a Grand Inquisitor at the age of 29, no mean feat. Particularly because she led a purge of her predecessor to get there.

Once the little group that had formed around Elena caught wind of it, they began to move the conversation politely and gently as they could toward Gertrude, with a heavy focus on acquiring her aid for their troubles.

A young man whose private shipyard had issues with labor unionists brought up the subject to Gertrude, who told him it would be easier to compromise with them than beat them; a woman expressed discomfort at the fact that homeless people congregated in a station block she bought for renovation, and Gertrude suggested charitable works; such conversations continued from there. After a point, more people, particularly young women, asked for Gertrude to recount her own tales, and such companionship felt much more sincere to Elena.

Gertrude would not become their personal attendants.

She was already bound to a promise.

And neither money nor brutality had ever formed part of her interests to begin with.

It seemed that the opportunists learned this at last.

And so the discussion lightened up.

Still it very much centered around Gertrude.

Everyone became impressed with her.

Maybe they had become bored of Elena.

That was fair; she found them all boring too.

While her companion was getting wrapped up in socializing, Elena felt she finally had a chance to take a breather and recuperate. She really was something of an introvert at heart, and she happily took the opportunity to slip out of the dull crowd as they mobbed Gertrude. She could have a drink in a corner near the band, collect herself. Maybe even ask Bethany about, well, everything.

As she broke from the group, however, someone called out to and approached her.

“Milady! Milady!” A woman stepped forward excitedly while calling for Elena. When the Princess stopped to acknowledge her, she clapped her hands together and beamed at her. “Milady, I wish you a wonderful birthday and many more to come. May I take your side for a moment?”

Her solicitor was a tall, blond woman. Her hair was styled so it fell partially over one eye, lending her an air of mystery. She wore a beautiful dress that was simple in its design but ornate in decoration, black with glittering blue gradients and a plunging neckline. Blue gloves and stockings with similar blue touches covered her arms from the hand to just above the elbow, and from thigh to foot. So while the dress showed off skin in some provocative places, she was actually quite well covered. What she chose to uncover left an impression: she had a scar on her chest, between her breasts, that was quite obvious. It looked to Elena like a surgical scar, but she did not want to inspect it for too long. It might have put her in a compromising position.

Elena was instantly curious about this woman and allowed her to take her arm for a brief walk, and she led her to a nearby table, where they had a drink of wine. While Elena only took a sip, her new companion downed the entire glass and set it back down on the table with a boisterous smile.

There was clearly something about her.

Not nobility; likely petite bourgeois, a capitalist.

“Only the best for the young lady.” She picked up a second glass, and this one she toasted with before taking a single sip. “Princess Elena von Fueller. Your location was a closely guarded secret, until today. We live in interesting times! I must say, I wish your brother had come too.”

Elene felt something off about the conversation. They were mostly out of earshot of anyone, and the woman’s tone bordered on impolite. Why did she walk her over here to drink in an unsightly fashion and whine like this?

“That’s a popular sentiment. But do you not think it rude to ask for my arm, only to talk about my brother? If you wish only to speak of him, contact his publicist instead of myself.”

She launched a barb, allowing her tone of voice to show some of her deeply held irritation. If her assumption proved correct, then this woman was not an aristocrat, and as such, insulting or humiliating her would have no consequence for Elena. While having money could make one materially equivalent to a noble, the petite bourgeois were not socially equivalent to nobles or even to the highest and most respected echelons of the military.

Someone like Gertrude while less wealthy, commanded more respectability; someone like Elena could treat any capitalist, however rich they were, like a filthy commoner, if she desired to do so. They were owed no more respect.

Her response did not move the woman one centimeter.

Her confidence was unshaken.

“I apologize. I was simply making an observation, but I may have been too blunt. I’m a keen observer of the court’s political atmosphere. To wit, I had been trying to find you, milady, for some time now. But it proved impossible, until you were allowed to be discovered for this party.”

Her dark red lips curled into a sly smile.

Elena was taken aback. “Why were you searching for me? If you think I am more pliable toward your business interests than my brother or my departed father, you are mistaken. I’m not looking to invest.”

What was her deal?

Elena was wracking her brain trying to find out. She could read so little from the woman’s self-aggrandizing expression. She was not like all the dressed-up bimbos and scheming clods whom her brother had invited to cause Elena grief. Behind those black eyes there was something going on. Did she just want money? Elena almost felt a sense of danger from her.

“Nothing so vulgar as that. It concerns your mother.”

Elena was briefly stunned speechless.

For her mother to come up twice in one evening–

The woman smiled and cut her off. “I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I’m Marina McKennedy. I would like to request a private audience tomorrow. I wish to bequeath to you something that was once your mother’s, and was kept with me, and rightly belongs to you.”

“You knew my mother?” Elena said, almost a whisper, a gasp.

Her heart pounded.

“She was the star of the court. More people knew and loved her than will speak of it today. She had many trusted friends, I was but one among them.”

Marine reached out a hand suddenly and patted Elena on the head, ruffling her hair slightly. The Princess looked around as if in a dream.

Nobody was paying attention to her.

Trapped in her own isolated corner of the world with this Marina McKennedy. Since nobody could see it, she smacked away Marina’s hand with clear aggression. “Don’t touch me! What are you playing at?”

“I apologize, it was a reflex. It’s because you look just like her.” Marina said. “It’s almost uncanny. So, is it permissible for me to visit tomorrow?”

Elena felt reduced to a child, and her emotions spiraled.

“Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

“My, my; manners, princess. I’ll come at teatime, then I will be gone.”

“You’ll be gone right now before I have the Grand Inquisitor remove you.”

Elena balled up her fists at her side, seeing red.

Marina looked if anything, more amused.

She bowed her head mockingly, turned around, and casually left the ballroom. Elena almost wondered if anybody else saw her, or if she was some kind of mocking ghost or spirit. She seemed almost to glide in under anyone’s notice. Elena knew somehow that she was not invited. She must have snuck into Vogelheim, and the eve of the party was just her opportunity to get close to Elena. But for what reason? Her mother? Really?

That being said, when that aggressive mood finally passed her, Elena realized that Marina could have easily hurt her if that was her intention. Maybe she really was an eccentric friend of her mother. Elena had heard that her mother was a free spirit, deep into the arts and culture and with many eccentric acquaintances, such as philosophers and poets and fashionistas. None of the people who had told her they knew her mother had been truly normal. Elena should have been used to this by now.

She knew so little about her.

If Marina was inviting herself, perhaps it was best to let her.

With that dark cloud over her head, Elena returned to the party.

Gertrude had really gotten sucked into the crowd.

She was laughing and being chummy and looked like she was finally opening up more. Perhaps the drink in her hand helped as well. Elena was not in the mood to feel positive about her special friend making chatter with people who were not her, on her own birthday. Elena let herself be as gloomy and unfriendly as she felt while she pushed her way back into the circle of aristocrats that had gathered around Gertrude.

Mid-conversation, the Inquisitor noticed Elena’s appearance and tried to make an escape.

“Ah, I’m getting peckish, I’m going to meet with a charcuterie plate, ciao!

She surreptitiously took Elena’s hand and silently urged her to follow.

Elena gave no resistance.

Around them, the crowd’s attentions were diverted.

Far in the background, Bethany had gone through a few songs already. Giving her vocal cords a break, she let the band take the lead, and left the stage with an announcement, wishing the partygoers well and to await her return. Her parting and the vigorous clapping that followed from the animated crowd of nobles gave Elena and Gertrude a chance to slip away.

Gertrude grabbed a pair of drinks from a plate and urged Elena to follow.

“You’ve had enough of this party haven’t you? What’s a good place to hide?”

“My room?”

Elena looked like a deer in the headlights for a second.

“Your room? Really? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t look for you there.”

With this agreement, they ditched the party entirely.

The Villa was completely deserted.

Everyone was at the party. There were more maids in the floor below, whipping up food when needed, but on the second floor, Elena’s so-called party was the nexus of all activity. Gertrude and Elena walked the empty halls together, making it all the way to Elena’s room without bumping into anyone or eliciting any suspicion. They locked the door behind themselves and were confident they had not been seen nor followed.

“Ah, it’s spacious.” Gertrude said. She looked over the arrangements briefly.

Gertrude had never been invited to Elena’s room before. When they were kids, they played together in approved settings, such as the school, or a park; as adults, when Gertrude visited, they had tea and went on walks. Since relocating to Vogelheim, Elena had never had a guest in her room. Gertrude’s eyes fell upon Elena’s stuffed toys and her humble bookshelf.

“I would have thought you would have way more stuff though.”

“I don’t really ask for much. My brother is always late delivering anything I order anyway.”

“He really has you go through him for anything huh?”

“He’s so overprotective, it’s honestly unnerving.”

Aside from her stuffies, Elena prized possessions were mainly her books as well as various pieces of learning software such as a universal encyclopedia, which were installed on the Villa’s main computer and could be accessed through thin clients on the network. She also had a Nexus 32-bit console and a few romantic adventure games, but she had thoroughly exhausted all of them and the console lay unplugged in a corner of the room. There was also her wardrobe, of course. That was not valuable at all.

“It’s cozy. I’m jealous; you can wake up to a breeze and look out at the sun.”

Gertrude walked over to the window and looked outside.

“It’s kind of annoying though. You can’t sleep in because of the sunlight.” Elena said.

“That beats staring at grey walls for months.” Gertrude winked at her.

“Everything out there is just as artificial as the walls in your ship.” Elena said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She sat on Elena’s bed, and Elena sat beside her.

They drank, and sat close, mostly quiet, contemplative.

The Princess glanced sidelong at the woman she fashioned as her knight and felt a thrilling sensation in her chest, a prickling electricity under her skin as she drank more. She knew that their positions in life were not supposed to cross, and furthermore, that she even endangered Gertrude by coveting her as she did. But the Princess could not help it. And so her hand snuck over Gertrude’s on the bed and squeezed tightly against it.

Gertrude, making no change in expression, squeezed back.

This touch set off a tiny transfer of body heat that sparked Elena’s heart.

At first she chided herself for what she wanted to say.

They were in a locked room, alone.

Though they were both women it was amply clear that they both viewed the same sex in a certain light. Their relationship to each other was special; Elena could call Gertrude her knight, her bosom friend, her dearest, all manner of beautiful words only for her. What she wanted then, what she coveted, was a lover. Someone who would fulfill her physically.

Elena had been raised to have certainly lady-like virtues.

She was also canny, however.

Ladies fucked around; probably even Bethany did.

Would a virtuous lady sit around making euphemisms all night until her promised pounced on her out of sheer starvation of touch? Elena could not imagine the aristocrats led such cold lives. No, there was certainly a language for asking for what she desired. And to some degree she knew it. That being said, it was difficult to overcome the programming of a puritanical society.

She wanted to have her first time with Gertrude. That was her romantic, storybook wish.

It was selfish to think about this when the entire Empire could fall apart in its present crisis.

That was what she told herself, she was selfish, she was a pervert, and yet–

And yet, it was the insanity of the moment which led her to seek comfort in Gertrude.

All of this then led Elena to make her case in the most roundabout way.

“You know, Gertrude, if you were a boy, this would be a grand opportunity for you.”

She said this, and tugged gently on Gertrude’s sleeve, wearing an embarrassed smile.

Gertrude fully turned her head to make eye contact. She blinked twice, quietly.

“Elena?”

“I just mean– we’ve had quite a hot date already, haven’t we? Now we’re here alone.”

Elena made this insinuation almost in a joking fashion, as if trying to back off, but the bevy of emotions swirling in her head belied the truth behind it. Gertrude, sitting with her on the bedside, made little response. Both of them had their cheeks turning red. The warmth transferring between their hands became hotter. For a few moments, they exchanged glances in an awkward silence.

She thought it only proper, that if something were to happen, Gertrude should initiate.

It was also an insurance policy for her own heart, perhaps.

She didn’t want to ask something scandalous directly, and then be turned down.

And yet, she also wanted that feeling of being taken.

Of losing control; being controlled by someone else, not being sole master of her body.

Losing responsibility, for a moment, for being The Imperial Princess.

All of these thoughts brewed like a perverted tea in her brain, but nothing happened.

Maybe Gertrude just was not as much as a deviant as Elena herself.

In the next instant, this fantasy had a brush with death. Elena nearly discarded her hopes.

Then Gertrude had a little laugh burst out of her. A laugh slick with a surging devilishness.

She turned fully around and extended an arm past Elena on the bed and pinned her down.

Now Gertrude hovered over her.

“Like this, you think? Sudden, rough, unexpected; how a real dirtbag would treat a lady.”

One of her knees been set between Elena’s legs so that she could not close them.

Elena’s thighs pressed against it.

Gertrude came suddenly very close.

Her lips brushed against Elena’s. They didn’t kiss, not fully, but the touch set off electricity all across Elena’s face, down her neck. Instead of taking her lips, Gertrude stalked closer, seeking something more. Elena was surprised. Gertrude really was pressing her weight right on top of her.

She supported herself looming over Elena with both hands at first.

One over the left shoulder, one under the right arm.

On her face was a sly expression, narrowed eyes, subtly spread lips.

Elena did not try to move out of her grasp. Her eyes drew wide.

Such a bold response set Elena’s heart afire. Her chest pounded. Her breathing quickened.

Sweat, formed glistening beads on her chest.

Gertrude’s hand moved from her shoulder, down her flank, over her hip.

Her fingers snuck beneath Elena’s skirt and grabbed a deep handful of her buttocks.

Elena tittered. Rather than panic, she found herself smiling at this act.

She was excited. She raised her arms to Gertrude’s hips as if inviting more.

Gertrude smiled back.

She then nearly fell over Elena with laughter.

Suddenly breaking the illusion she had created.

Elena suddenly felt a little ridiculous herself. She laughed with Gertrude, still holding her.

“We’re hopeless.” Said the Princess.

Gertrude shook her head.

“Elena, I cannot say I am personally experienced in this, but I’m also not so innocent, you know? Soldiers spend months out at sea, and we do indulge these kinds of fantasies. If you think I haven’t– However, it is just not my style to take action amid so many ambiguities and unspoken words as this.”

“What– What should I do then?” Elena said.

That dark expression appeared on Gertrude’s face again.

She leaned back down on Elena.

“Become mine and mine alone. Beg me for something no one else can give.”

Gertrude’s voice, low, slick, dangerous, her words tickled Elena’s ears.

Dark, seductive whispers that pulled Elena tantalizingly close to oblivion.

“Tell me what you want, Princess. I’ll grant your every wish. But you have to beg for it. I don’t want to do anything if we’re just fooling ourselves.”

She felt Gertrude’s knee up against her again.

A tiny, stammering sound escaped from her lips.

Her heart caught in her chest.

Was she simply so weak?

Or was Gertrude just naturally, monstrously strong?

Feeling the force in her lover’s words, Elena succumbed to the compulsion.

She whispered in Gertrude’s ears. She whispered what she wanted.

Gertrude grinned with great self-satisfaction.

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude raised her head away from Elena’s whispering lips and then suddenly descended on them. She took the princess into a deep, sudden kiss, pushing her down on the bed.

For a princess who could have nearly anything in the world which could be bought, this was the one thing she was barred from. Choosing who gets to taste her lips, to touch her body. Those choices were taken from her mother and they’d be taken from her; and yet, in the insane situation in which the world found itself, Elena finally felt free from her responsibilities.

Gertrude’s lips parted from her own, a thread of spittle briefly connecting their tongues.

Was this the thread of their conjoined fate? It was brief; but there would be more.

“I’m going to move you and undress you, ok?”

Gertrude sat up and pulled Elena up with her, sitting her on the bed.

From behind her, Gertrude carefully undid Elena’s dress and pulled it off her shoulders.

Elena felt a chill down her spine, and gooseflesh, as her skin was exposed to a cool breeze.

“Careful.” Elena said. “It’s my mother’s heirloom. I’ll do it.”

Gertrude nodded. For a moment, she instead undressed herself. She stripped off her suit, vest, button-down, until she was topless, exposing her strong shoulders and lean belly. Her toned body glistened with sweat.

Elena spotted a patch adhered to her left rib. It was her healing injury.

“Sorry you have to see this.” Gertrude winked.

“All of your scars are beautiful to me, Gertrude.”

She did not have many. But there were a few. And Elena did love them.

Every part of Gertrude was a part she loved.

Smiling, Gertrude shifted her legs off the bed for a moment and pulled down her pants, before crossing them and pulling Elena closer to her again. She could feel Gertrude’s hot, irregular breathing behind her neck. Then she felt her lips, on her shoulder, on her neck. A nip at her ear.

Her elfin ears were longer than an Imbrian’s, and particularly sensitive.

She quivered a little and let out a tiny gasp.

“Take your time undressing. Are you feeling good?”

Elena nodded her head quietly.

She gently shed the various accoutrements on her body, unveiling more pearl-pink skin.

As she did, Gertrude’s newly freed hands glided up her flanks, over her ribs.

Elena felt her back press up against Gertrude’s breasts.

She was warm and protected again. She did not realize how much bigger Gertrude was until she was wrapped in her embrace, and her lover could almost rest her head on Elena’s in the position that they were in. Her hands wandered, pressing against Elena’s skin, rising up her chest.

Just as she had grabbed hold of Elena’s rear, she squeezed both of her breasts.

“Oh!”

“That’s a cute reaction.”

That low, sultry voice kissed her ears again.

Gertrude cupped her fingers over her breasts, teasing her more.

Brief, and probing, as if it was a novel sensation.

Just a tease; soon the hands moved again.

Into the bundle of discarded dress that hung around Elena’s hips and legs.

Elena felt it instantly. A wild heat that coursed through her midsection.

As soon as Gertrude’s fingers teased down her inner thigh.

As soon as they applied pressure–

“Oh– my god–”

“You’re shaking so much. I’ve barely done anything. What a dirty Princess.”

Gertrude delivered another sultry whisper into Elena’s pointed ear.

Between Elena’s legs, Gertrude’s finger slipped down the center, gently parting soft skin.

One of her lover’s strong arms went around Elena’s stomach, holding her steady.

Gertrude nipped Elena’s neck, kissing, sucking, while her hand worked faster.

Her fingers ceased exploring; one slipped inside the princess with swift ease.

“Gertrude–”

And another flicked and pressed against her clit.

“Oh my god Gertrude–”

Elena nearly let out all the air in her lungs. She bent against Gertrude’s body.

Her hips threw back. She felt like she had hit Gertrude’s chest–

But the sensation, the heat, the feeling of pressure building and washing over her–

Gertrude smiled, her face up against Elena’s. “I hope this is how you fantasized it too.”

Her fingers worked faster.

Elena’s entire body quaked with those words, that touch.

A wave crashed over her, shuddering from her core and out to her limbs.

She let out a cry, a cry of relief, a release of pressure, a cry of joy.

She sank against Gertrude, soaked in sweat and more, tittering.

Tears started to form in Elena’s eyes. Tears of joy. “Ger– Trude I– I l-l-love–“

Gertrude kissed her cheek and embraced her with both arms.

“I know. I love you too. And I’ll always protect you, Elena. Always.”


In the middle of an encore of Lili Marlene, Bethany Skoll chided herself internally.

Everyone was going crazy over her singing; and she looked killer in a red dress.

When she wanted to, she could still sex herself up and steal anyone’s gaze.

Something about that did please her. It felt like what she got up to with Leda.

But caught up in the passion of the moment, her own gaze had lost its sharpness too.

She had lost track of the princess; and none of the drunk men or absentminded bimbos in the crowd seemed to care that the birthday girl was gone either. Bethany surmised that since the lady Lichtenberg was gone too, they must be together. She understood that they were both women who valued the same sex differently than most; so she had some inkling of what they might do.

It was a special night, they were a little tipsy, and they were alone.

Such things tugged at her matronly concerns, but it was a new world.

By the dawn, it could well be the least of their problems.

At least Elena was not in any danger with Lady Lichtenberg.

Or at least not in danger of losing anything but her virginity.

Bethany chided herself for another fact as well.

Prince Erich had never come to the party. He had invited all of these people, who truly came only for his presence and cared nothing for Elena, and then he himself had failed to show. Such a disservice could only mean that there was a plot afoot. He never intended to come because he chose not to be in Vogelheim for his precious sister’s birthday. His sister, whom he himself had hidden in Vogelheim. For her own security; to keep her away from the nobles’ resurgent devilry.

She dared not dream that Prince Erich was scheming against the princess.

However, he may well have been scheming against these people.

So Bethany was torn between the song, the dance, the ardor; and the cold, unknown reality.

For a while she simply sang and entrusted the Princess to her own judgment.

After all, she was a woman now. She had to be trusted to make her own decisions.

As the night wore on, and the assembled began to lose whatever ambition had brought them to this unknown place, as they began to lose sight of what they were hoping to find or what sort of opportunity they might score, Bethany decided to bring the night to a close for them. She and the maids doubled as a security team, so they were crafty in their own ways. Erich had dropped this mess on their shoulders quite suddenly, and they had everything under control nonetheless.

“Thank you so much for the applause. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform that your entertainment for tonight has concluded. There will be transportation awaiting you, and you may stay at the Schellen Hotel for the night or return to your personal watercraft at this time. Our dear Elena von Fueller wishes she could have entertained you personally for longer, but business has unfortunately led her away from us. Nonetheless, you will all be remembered in the Princess’ heart for your company tonight. Once again, thank you for your attendance, and have a pleasant night.”

Significant amounts of the partygoers had drank enough to have some trouble interpreting the announcement, but the cordial and pretty maids who appeared from the crowd’s flanks gently guided everybody away from the drinks and the dance hall, slowly peeling the partygoers out the door, down the stairs, and out to the garden, where a small fleet of private motorcars were waiting. Bethany did not see that particular detail, though she knew that they planned it like that.

Instead, she stood up on the stage, and viewed the empty dance floor.

She remembered when she first sang for her; when she looked down at her on an empty dance floor just like this. Back then, it was an entirely different world. Neither of them knew what attention would fall on them, what kind of life they would end up having. Bethany had a dire need of confidence in herself. Leda gave her all the confidence she lacked, helped her feel alive.

That empty, improvised dance floor, and the tables in disarray.

It was so much like that night.

“No use remembering any of this, Bethany. She’s gone.”

Everything she did now was for Elena.

Bethany walked off the stage.

She picked up a bottle of champagne that was perhaps three quarters empty, grabbing it by the neck with the same grip that would have strangled a man, and emptying the contents into her lips. A tiny amount of slipped from the side of her mouth, and for an instant, she must have really looked like a bloodsucking beast, more than a singer in red.

There were a lot of sides to her.

“I still got it. For how much longer? As long as it takes, I suppose.”

Most of the maids would still be engaged a while, so Bethany thought she would give herself a few moments to wallow and feel sorry for herself. Perhaps she always felt this way after singing. Singing helped her vent.

It flared up her emotions, and she had many emotions to burn.

Perhaps that was what made truly great singers.

Having to hide the pain that they felt.

“Great performance; I really managed to get into the mood myself.”

A chilling voice, its volume tightly controlled.

As Bethany made her way out the doors of the lodge and locked them behind her, she heard and saw a woman approach. A blond, who instantly peeled off her own blond hair to reveal shorter black hair, tied into a little bun, half up and half down, with bangs falling over one of her eyes.

Boldly dressed, and moving boldly, the woman invaded Bethany’s space.

One hand struck the locked door behind Bethany, close to the maid’s ear.

Her free hand took Bethany’s wrist.

And her knee went under and between Bethany’s legs.

She had a completely stone-like, inexpressive face.

“Miss me?” She said.

In the next instant as Bethany’s lips parted to respond, Marina McKennedy’s head tipped to one side and pressed the rest of her claim on Bethany’s orbit. Her tongue tasted like smoke and liquor in Bethany’s mouth, and for some reason that kiss and the way her lips locked against the maid’s caused eerily familiar sensations. Still, her natural reaction was to struggle against the kiss. She pushed on the woman’s stomach and chest with her free hand, while her lips continued to freely taste her as if nothing were happening. Feeling for an instant the trained muscle beneath the woman’s dress, and the strength of her grip, Bethany finally managed to shove her back.

“You cad! I’ll have you locked up!” Bethany shouted, breathing heavy.

“It’s Marina now. Marina McKennedy. Well– I mean. You know.”

Bethany was suddenly confused. “Who are you?”

“Look down.”

Marina pulled down on her already plunging neckline to expose more of her breasts. Bethany stared at her exposed chest and saw a familiar scar.

“Wait. You’re–”

“Yes, but don’t talk about it.”

“Wait is it really? Blake? But– you didn’t used to be a–”

“That name was fake too but don’t call me that. Can you drop it? Look.”

She produced a gold card.

A plaque, bearing an owl perched atop a round shield.

The symbol of the Republic of Alayze’s G.I.A, General Intelligence Agency.

Marina smiled, seeing Bethany’s shocked reaction.

“As you can see, a hell of a lot has happened to me. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not gonna say I can’t, because nobody’s here to stop me. But I won’t. Do you miss me? I have time that I wanted to spend with you. It’ll be– different this time, but I know you like it both ways.”

“Solceanos protect me. It really is you.”

Bethany slapped Marina across the face.

She struck her so hard, she wanted to draw blood.

Marina grit her teeth, still smiling, though clearly put off-balance by the strike. “I kinda deserve that.” She said, reaching for lips to see if they had broken. They had not. “But at the same time Betty when we met, you approached me, you know? And I was younger than you by a good bit. So honestly, how can you blame me for still being smitten with such a cool, mature lady?”

“Cut the crap. We were using each other. And a wealthy dilettante still ranks lower on the scale of relationship power dynamics than a secret agent, even when you factor in a few years.”

“Did you miss me?” Marina said again.

At this point, Bethany could not tell if Marina McKennedy meant to ask whether Marina had missed her as one of the party guests, a cruel joke on her successful infiltration; or whether Marina meant to ask her if she missed her company. Bethany chided herself again. Her gaze really was losing her sharpness. She had missed Elena and this dangerous character.

And yet, Bethany had mixed emotions about Marina McKennedy.

Now that she knew who it was, she almost wanted to go back to the kiss.

Even if transactional, she remembered it was almost as good with her as it was with Leda.

“Why are you here? It can’t have just been to rekindle an old flame. To get here you would have had to have known our secret. So you got access to that information. What do you want?”

“You’re too cold to yourself. You’re worth the trip.”

“Stop it. You want me to trust you after all these years? For once in your life, be honest.”

“I’m way more honest with you than any other GIA agent would be.”

Marina sighed briefly.

“Elena von Fueller is here. I want to explain to her what happened to her mother and try to convince her to leave. She can defect to the Republic. She won’t have a future here, Bethany.”

“Of course. It was always about the Princess.”

Bethany was conflicted; briefly, before Marina suddenly put a hand on her shoulder.

It was a gentle hand, grasping at her with desire.

“Bethany, I’d also love to spend the night. I– I hate to admit it, but I need to be comforted too, every once in a while. I really have been through a lot. The next few months are gonna be hell for me. Is it okay if, just for tonight, I can have a little island of peace in these stormy seas?”

“You are just using me.” Bethany said. “Maybe I have more self-respect than that now.”

“But this time I’m the one who is desperate. Can you help me? I’ve been through hell.”

Marina’s eyes teared up. Bethany almost voiced her surprise aloud at the sight.

“So much for the mighty G.I.A., all-seeing, all-knowing of the seas.”

Bethany wiped Marina’s tears; Marina recoiled at the touch as if she feared being hit again.

The head maid was surprised. The G.I.A. agent was much cooler and more collected the last time they met. Judging by the fact that she was, well, so completely changed, and her current demeanor, either she had become a far better actor or something truly awful really had happened to her. Something that made her change herself entirely, maybe to run away; maybe to be able to accept it. Bethany could not know how much of this identity was fake or how much was genuine.

As much of a schemer as Bethany was, she could not imagine what a spy went through.

That was always one thing which made Leda distant too.

Leda, herself an arch-schemer who wanted to play every side to her advantage.

Bethany had failed to soothe Leda at all; she had failed to be an equal partner to her.

Some would say, nobody could have stood up to the colossus that Leda was.

And yet, Bethany was still stung by it.

Looking at Marina’s tearful face, she remembered a scene.

Just like when she stared down at the empty dance floor.

It really was a night filled with déjà vu.

When Leda had made that face to Bethany, it was the last time Bethany ever saw her.

She did not want to fail a lonely, hurt woman again; even if she was a two-faced bitch.

“We can discuss business later. But I’m going to need you to shape up. I’m not here for you to fall apart on. I’m still going to be needing you to top.”

Those were some words she wished she had told Leda, too.

Bethany winked at Marina. For a moment, Marina was struck speechless.

She wiped her own face and smiled coolly as if nothing had happened.

“You’re right. This isn’t me. I have to be the cool spy you fell in love with.”

“Oh, shut up. Were you faking?”

“I wasn’t! You have to believe me. You weren’t this paranoid with Leda.”

Marina raised her hands in defense.

Bethany sighed.

“Follow me. And keep your hands to yourself until we get in bed.”

“I’ll be perfectly gentlemanly.”

“Shut up, too.”

That night, it was not just Elena who found a pair of arms to stave off the bad dreams.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.3]

Gertrude tied Glanz’ leash to an old tree and sat down beside the princess, staring out into the gaps between the trees. The pair had ridden at speed up to the forest and then slowed again to a trot, taking in the atmosphere. Tree canopies formed a ceiling that was unbroken enough to dim the artificial sunlight down to the barest rays peering through the leaves. The pair stopped at a big blue pond that had formed owing to a little brook which ran through it. (Which is to say, it was contrived to appear formed by this brook, itself contrived by whoever designed this piece of Vogelheim.)

There was a sullen atmosphere to the forest. Elena wondered if it was always like this, or if she was only grown enough now to realize the emptiness here. There were no animals in the forest like squirrels or game, only birds. Birds were the only animal introduced into Vogelheim, and they lived exclusively off grain that the people of the station gave to them. The paltry few insects that existed were tiny flies that seemed almost to blossom as if from out of the dirt itself wherever humans happened to live.

As such, the forest was silent save for the errant noises Glanz made as it chewed on grass or stretched its legs, and the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It was peaceful, but without Gertrude at her side, Elena would have felt so alone with herself that it would have been eerie. She thought to herself she would never come here solely for her own pleasure.

“What’s on your mind?” Gertrude asked.

Elena leaned closer to her, resting her head against Gertrude’s shoulder.

“It’s a beautiful sight.”

“Ah, the forest? It’s quite unique. I’m so used to metal hallways, or arcology streets.”

Sighing, Elena looked up at Gertrude, as the latter gazed upon the trees.

“Yes, the forest,” she said, cryptically.

Gertrude perhaps caught the interesting tone that Elena’s voice had taken.

She said nothing about it, but she was smiling.

“What are your plans for tonight? Am I invited to your party?” Gertrude asked.

“Of course you are!” Elena shouted suddenly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I didn’t even want to have a party. It’s my brother who is sending a bunch of people here. I only wanted to see you.”

“You should be more social. I shouldn’t be the only one you want to have fun with.”

She said that, but Gertrude’s hopelessly flushed face seemed to speak differently.

“Okay! Maybe you shouldn’t be, but you are, so bear your responsibility.”

Elena leaned her head harder into Gertrude’s shoulder and chest.

“Then I’ll come to your party, but you must only dance with me.” Gertrude said.

“Simple enough! Because I don’t want to dance with anyone else!”

Gertrude stared out ahead at the trees again, her lips wearing the gentlest, most subtle smile.

Her eyes were distant. As if she was gazing upon something far, far away in space or time.

“Elena, thank you. Being able to come back to you for a day keeps me alive for years.”

“Gertrude?”

“Thank you. I love you, so much.”

Her arms extended around Elena and held her tightly.

She felt warm, comforted in embrace. She felt safe, even though their fates were uncertain.

Gertrude’s arms, both her own arms, and the arms at her command, would protect her.

Elena’s father had died. The Emperor had died.

No matter how the nobles or her brother reacted, the Ocean he ruled would change forever.

Because the shadow that Konstantin von Fueller cast was now gone.

And so Elena’s isolated little world was thrown into some uncertainty.

Held tight against Gertrude’s breast, cheek to cheek with her, all of that felt so distant.

Elena wanted to say, ‘I love you’ back. But at that moment her tongue was held in its place.

There was a lot she wanted to say that she could not. Perhaps that was ultimately fine.

They quietly, gently held each other for some time, long enough for Glanz to get antsy.

Gertrude was the first to begin to move away from the embrace. She loosened her grip on Elena and helped her to stand up from the grass. The two of them walked around the pond on foot, Gertrude taking Glanz’s reins in hand and leading him. There was nothing to see in the forest, and far less whimsical faerie mischief than Elena had envisioned she might feel, but there was still a fun, fond feeling of walking with someone precious. They led the horse through the trees, taking in the heady smell of moist earth. Once they were out in the fields, they climbed on Glanz again.

“Honestly, I thought we would be able to have a bit more fun in there.” Elena said.

Gertrude laughed. “I loved walking with you. Having good company is enough.”

“I thought we’d roll in the grass or eat fresh-picked berries or something whimsical.”

“Even when we were little we didn’t really do those things, and they sound like kids’ stuff.”

Elena grumbled for a moment, now even more disappointed at her squashed fantasies.

“Let’s go into town then! There’s more to do; but don’t get too excited.” She said.

“I have no illusions of being in an arcology here, don’t worry!” Gertrude replied.

This time, Gertrude kicked against Glanz’ flanks a few times in succession.

She loosened the reins to give the horse free reign to thunder forward.

“Whoa!”

“Hang on!”

Elena backed up against Gertrude, who crossed her arms under Elena’s own to hold her. The Princess felt her heart accelerate with both the horse’s incredible charge and her knight’s arms so closely supporting her. After the initial moment of surprise, she stabilized and got used to the speed. This was what she wanted; the romantic sprint through the fields, at full gallop!

Glanz’ feet lifted so high, it seemed like the creature would jump or take off in flight. Elena’s hair blew back behind her with the wind, and Gertrude had her head against Elena’s shoulder, cheek to cheek, to see where Glanz was going. They crossed the hills descending from the forest, crossed the grasses and flowers, and hit the seaside road that led to the town.

On one side, they had the rising green of the hills, dotted with yellow and red flowers; and on the other, the seemingly endless blue sea, shimmering in the light of the sun overhead. Gulls soared overhead. There were boats going out into the water, some bedecked with colorful sails and flags, and others were rowboats fit only for two. There was no substantial fishing to do, not even as a diversion. But it was pleasant to be out with a loved one in the gentle waves, she thought.

Gertrude gently pulled back on the reins, and Glanz slowed.

Such a clean transition from a gallop to a trot could only have been accomplished by a well-trained horse and a skilled rider. Elena was impressed, and she clapped for the two of them.

“Gertrude, that was magnificent! Thank you! I didn’t know you were such a rider!”

“I did not know either.” Gertrude smiled nervously. “I was just going with the flow.”

“Oh my!”

“It made you excited, so it was well worth it.”

Vogelheim was the name of the station. Elena knew the Villa had some kind of antiquated name that no one hardly ever said — after all it was the only villa in this isolated place, so she could certainly just call it ‘the Villa.’

But she knew the little port town was called Blumehafen.

It was a small town with maybe four or five blocks of waterfront businesses and entertainments that all shared a few streets. There were eateries, a bar, a hotel, one apartment building, an old theater; an arcade full of mechanical tables; tour centers for birdwatching, horseback lessons, watercraft rentals; and a few tourist traps. Vogelheim was not popular. Only a few people knew that the villa housed Princess Elena. So those who came here wanted to go to the most isolated station in the Empire to run away from their troubles. Everything had an old, lived-in, rustic aesthetic that played to the rural fantasies of those who retreated here.

Business would probably boom if Elena became the star attraction.

And she would hate to endure that, so she was glad for the secrecy.

Most Imperial citizens did not even know what she looked like.

Whenever she attended ceremonies, she was so dressed up in fancy clothes, hair and makeup, to the point that she looked nothing like the simple self she saw in the mirror. And she and the royal family were always off in their own booth or otherwise separated from the rest of the people there. Elena’s aristocratic schoolmates could recognize her in her current garb, but they would not know to find her in Vogelheim, and the people of Vogelheim would not know that she was Elena von Fueller.

She looked nothing like the Emperor; or even her popular brother Erich.

Her mother’s elfin blood had clearly expressed itself, over that of the Men of the North.

And she had never really been involved in politics. Her face wasn’t on any propaganda.

Therefore, functionally, nobody knew who she was or where she lived her days.

They knew about an Imperial princess, living out her days as a potential pawn to bring this or that noble into line with the rule of the Palatinate state through marriage. They knew of Konstantin’s scandalous remarriage. They knew his second wife had made no more appearances, while his only daughter did clearly remain in the inventory of the royal family.

Except for Gertrude, the villa’s staff, her brother, and few trusted confidants, however, nobody knew Elena von Fueller. Nobody could fill that name with what it contained. It was this fact that allowed Elena to simply ride into town with Gertrude with a light heart.

They would not have to hide anything.

There were few people to even hide from anyway.

At the edge of town, they tied Glanz up near a trough full of water for horses and went on their way together on foot. There was no sense in running through the town in a hurry; they wouldn’t be able to experience anything that way. So they walked through the town streets instead, attracting what little attention there was. Elena spotted a few women she recognized as servants at the villa, but they were on their days off, some with lads, and therefore they did not acknowledge one another. Elena was walking through town with her own date: there was mutual understanding.

“We’re having supper later, but would you like a treat?” Gertrude asked.

She pointed to a parlor nearby which was advertising shaved ice and cream cones.

“I’d love to! Those bossy maids never let me have junk food like this.”

There was a certain simplicity to a cardboard cup of shaved ice with sweet red syrup that Elena truly loved. She was excited when Gertrude led them up to the little wooden parlor, and out one of the side windows a man dressed in overalls handed them their snacks. Elena immediately took the little spoon and scarfed down the peak of the little icy mountain in her cup. So quickly did she devour it, that the roof of her mouth and the floor of her brain turned painfully cold. Elena closed her eyes, spoon still in her mouth.

“Are you okay there?” Gertrude asked, giggling. “Slow down a little.”

Strolling through town, the two of them took in the salty breeze on the edge of the artificial sea, watching the gulls land on the edges of the pier and waddling around the small strip of sandy beach they could see between gaps on the concrete seafront. They followed the street up a hill, where there stood no more buildings between them and the sea, so it felt like an actual seafront stroll. Instead of the beach, there was a slight cliff, and the waves beating up to it rose almost as high as the steel guardrails protecting visitors from falling down into the waters.

“I want to go surfing sometime. Have you ever done that?” Elena said.

“Since when did you become interested in sport?” Gertrude asked, poking her.

The Inquisitor’s strong finger easily sank Elena’s marshmallow soft bicep.

Elena grumbled at her. “I’m done being a homebody! I want to have adventures too!”

“Oh if the maids could hear you. You really do mortify those women with your whims.”

“To hell with them! It’s your fault for that thrilling horse ride. Now all I want is speed!”

Elena put on a devilish face, and it looked like Gertrude truly believed her teasing.

One part of the beach was calm as could be, while another was rocky; there was a lone windsurfer out in the water taking advantage of this. All of it signaled to the artifice with which Vogelheim had been crafted. Elena almost felt the little illusion of her world breaking, but she did not concern herself with it. For a cage, Vogelheim was beautiful in a way the rest of the Imbrium Ocean was not. Disagreeable as she found Imperial politics, at least they could build these things. Her mind started to wander off.

Gertrude was here, and those days were always pleasant.

Before, they would just spend time indoors.

Now Elena was grown-up. She and Gertrude could have all of Vogelheim for themselves. But not anywhere else; and who knows for how long.

Despite everything, she could not keep her anxieties suppressed forever.

“What’s on your mind, Elena?” Gertrude asked as they walked slowly downhill.

Up ahead, the town started to come to an end. They would have to turn back for Glanz.

“What will you be doing next? Do you have another mission?” Elena asked.

“There’s always another mission. But don’t fret. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Hey, don’t treat me like a kid, okay? I want to know what you’re going through.”

Gertrude sighed a bit. She smiled at Elena again. But it was a strained smile.

“There’ll be unrest. Due to the current events.” She was sidestepping the death of Elena’s father. Maybe it was her duty as a soldier to her liege, or maybe she just didn’t know how little Elena really felt about the Emperor’s passing. Whatever it was, Elena didn’t like the tone, but she would say nothing as Gertrude continued. “It’s the Inquisition’s job to keep the peace. Hopefully, there’ll be a smooth transition of power to Prince Erich and we can all calm down.”

“You think something will happen?”

Elena found herself indulging in a similar set of ambiguities as Gertrude.

She hardly wanted to say aloud what the “something” she spoke of truly meant.

Gertrude smiled. “Don’t worry. It’s just uncertainty; everyone’s tense in the interregnum. I’m sure once Prince Erich returns to the Palatinate and is able to meet with the Dukes and Duchesses formally, they will quickly settle matters and the mood in the Empire will calm down.”

Elena knew that was wishful thinking.

Veka, Lehner, Buren, Pontiff Skarsgaard– there were too many carnivores who had taken power in the Duchies. And her father had done nothing but punish, humiliate and alienate them all. None of them were people she would consider good or noble in their aspirations, but they were in their ordained places and did their duties. If everyone wanted to fight, they would definitely deserve the pain they would receive. That it would be justified did nothing to allay Elena’s fears.

“You know, I thought you didn’t want to talk about this stuff?” Gertrude asked.

She spoke in a tone that said she was trying to make light of things, to change the mood.

It bothered the Princess to be treated that way at that moment.

“Please. Don’t act so false about this. I’m not a child, ‘Trude.”

Elena said this with a voice that was a bit petulant, but also deadly serious.

“I need to know about these things. I can’t keep hiding here and expecting that despite my powerlessness and uselessness, I’ll keep being cared for and kept like a pet. I don’t even know what my own brother plans to do with me. You’re my knight, Gertrude; I need your help.”

A lot of emotions came pouring out of her. She was finally able to voice her worries.

Gertrude stopped walking, and she turned around and immediately pulled Elena into an embrace. Her strong arms wrapping around the Princess, pulling her into her warm chest. It gave Elena that same sense of comfort and protection she felt in the forest. But this time it hadn’t been her who sought it out. It was freely given, forging the second link in their compact together.

Elena’s fair cheeks flushed red. Her face and body were overtaken with warmth.

“I’ll always protect you. No matter what happens. I’m not being dishonest. I don’t know what will happen in ten cycles, five cycles, or even tomorrow. But no one will touch you, Elena.”

Standing by the seaside, in the arms of her knight, Elena sank her head against that warm bosom and began to cry. She thought she was pathetic, unable to do anything herself, completely defeated by the moment. And yet she was also filled with love for Gertrude, the faithful servant, earnest guard, and now, her accomplished knight, who had never deserted her through the years. Her chest was gripped with pain, but she treasured that moment nonetheless.


Previous ~ Next

Brigands [3.2]

This one she could not blame on drinking. This time it was all squarely on her.

“You did it again Yana. You have no self-control. You horrible– you evil–”

Her self-flagellation caught in her throat. She thought she would puke. She sobbed.

She drank last night. She drank a lot. And had that been all, she would not have wept.

What made her most upset was that she was not drunk. She was fully aware.

She remembered everything, but it was as if she had done it all with a devil on her shoulder.

In her head she reviewed everything she had done as if she had watched a stranger do it.

But it was not some stranger. It was herself. She did it, and she knew it, and hated the fact.

On the nightstand, an empty bottle. Apricot liquor. Fancy stuff; it was a big enough bottle that she hoped she had help with it. A headache, a sense of burning in her chest, and the cold sweat running down her face, down her back; she had drunk it. She had drunk a lot. However, the most mortifying thing is she never lost control. Everything she did was impulsive but deliberate.

Last night she had gone out to celebrate the end of the recent crisis. Drinking, dancing, at different venues across the station, at the plazas, co-ops, canteens, joining a throng of celebrants. She hit it off with a particular someone, and from there everything felt like magic. Lovely, witty conversation, fast, flirtatious dancing, great booze. They found a private nook, and after slipping the coat off her shoulders, she dove into that first hungry kiss in the neck. Then she went home, and not alone. She had lifted her up by her legs, dropped her onto the bed, devoured her.

Yana gagged, the burning in her chest rising to her throat.

No amount of being drunk justified it. She felt mortified. This was her own room and her own bed that she had woken up in. And the stranger sharing it with her was her responsibility.

A dark-haired, waifish young woman laid beside her, close enough to share her warmth. Young; clearly younger than Yana. Her chest rose and fell with gentle breathing, completely exposed with all the loving red marks which had been put on the tips of her breasts, her collarbones, between her thighs. Atop her head a pair of cat-like, neatly fluffy ears periodically twitched.

Every so often a tiny little moan would escape her lips. Her tail would curl up too.

Her sleep was untroubled. Maybe she had just not drank as much,

She covered the girl up with a sheet. Both for her comfort and dignity, and to hide her.

“How old is she, Yana,” She berated herself.

Her shaking fingers hit the wall, and the room computer put up the ID that had been logged.

The woman she had spent the night having sex with was 27 years old.

“Yana, you’re nine years older than her.”

She brought the same hand she had used to type into the wall, up to her face.

Her whole body was shaking with shame. She absolutely hated herself.

Among other things she was shaking with, was her continuing, heavy bout with nausea.

Bolting from the bed, she rushed her own cold, naked body to the bathroom, where she bent over the waste collection vents. Seemingly understanding of her plight, the bathroom spread a fine, sweet-smelling mist over her as it washed away the contents of her stomach. She felt the sting of the liquor coming back up her throat. She hated it; she hated herself so much for this.

“I’ll apologize when she wakes up.” She said, breathlessly, to herself. “I’ll ask if she wants anything from me and I’ll give it to her. If she wants me to appear before council, or marriage–”

She could hardly think back to the other times this had happened where no restitution was necessary, as she was caught in such a mire of self-loathing that everything seemed a grand crime and nothing about the other woman’s agency entered her head. She was in this state, watching her bathroom clean itself, for several minutes, before a notification appeared on the wall next to her.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I request to meet with you.”

Yana was speechless, staring with a wide, horror-stricken gaze at the ID of the visitor.

Parvati Nagavanshi.

While her bed was taken up by a woman in the afterglow, while she was naked, with her knees on the floor bent over a grate, and the apartment smelled of booze and sweat despite the best effort of the machines– the Commissar-General was at her door awaiting an audience.

Was this it? The day that her absurd life would be put to an end?

“Ulyana Korabiskaya, your room says it is occupied. It is past 1100 hours and you should be awake. I am willing to leave a message, but this discourtesy is highly irregular, and I resent it.”

It was past 1100 hours.

Yana raised her hand up to her face and pulled down in distress.

“Just a moment!” She shouted. “One minute and I’ll be there!”

From her bed she heard a low murmur, and a purring noise.

Yana froze in place.

“I will wait.” Nagavanshi said.

Her heart was stuck in her chest. She could not breathe or move.

There was silence for just enough to convince Yana that the girl had not woken up.

Carefully, she rose to her feet, and pulled a nearly see-through casual robe from her closet.

Throwing this on, her hair slightly wet, she appeared to have stepped out of the shower.

In this attire, she opened the door a crack, and smiled at the Commissar-General.

“Good morning, Nagavanshi!” She said cheerfully. “My, it has been so long hasn’t it?”

“It’s good to see you again. Get dressed. We need to speak at length.”

Nagavanshi’s expression was humorless as usual. Always pristinely uniformed, no matter where she went; she was a walking office, exercising her duty every hour of the day. She was a woman of slight stature, professional and groomed, with her hair tied up under her peaked cap, her dark skin completely unadorned with makeup or accessories of any kind. Her gaze was the most intense part of her, unwavering even with her eyes shaded by her cap and framed by tidy bangs.  

Yana laughed. She sounded audibly uncomfortable and she could not hide it.

“I had a bit of a rough night.” Yana said.

“I can tell. What you need is to eat something and get some plaza air. Come on.”

For a brief moment Nagavanshi turned her head to try to see around Yana.

“Okay! Give me a few minutes!”

Yana slammed the door shut.

She put her back to it, breathing ragged, staring at the placidly sleeping girl in her bed.

Their clothes were on the floor. In one corner she found her dress, and the one-piece wet suit she had worn last night. So the tiny, filmy, erotic black dress must have belonged to the woman in her bed. Her lover’s suit was shaded mesh that was almost see-through, and the dress itself had plenty of gaps for skin to show. It was an incredibly bold design, at the cutting edge of fashion — and maybe modesty. Yana loved it; it was the kind of clothes she would have loved to wear, if she did not feel a persisting shame in the pit of her stomach for being a party girl at age 36.

Yana tapped on the wall again and brought the woman’s ID one more time.

Her name was Aaliyah Bashara.

“I’ll make it up to you.” She clapped her hands together and bowed her head as if begging. “Please forgive me!” Trying not to drop dead from the overwhelming, mortifying sense of shame she felt with herself, Yana donned a casual one-piece swimsuit, along with a jacket and a pair of pants. Her long, wavy blond hair she quickly tied up behind the back of her head with a big, sturdy hair claw. There was no time to fix her makeup. She just washed her face and dabbed it off.

Aaliyah was not stirring throughout. She was out like a light.

Yana pinned a wall computer window on one of the walls, leaving it open with a note.

“Ulyana–”

  “I’m coming!”

I have to go, but I will make it up to you. — Yana K.

There was no more time to agonize over what she could say or do for Aaliyah Bashara that would be enough to assuage her own guilt and shame, let alone any feelings Aaliyah Bashara actually had about the night they had spent. With little consideration for the young woman and a head full of completely self-centered thoughts, Yana finally left the apartment to meet Nagavanshi outside. The Commissar, for her part, had not changed in demeanor for the better or the worse.

“You look in total disarray.” Nagavanshi said. “Let’s get you some food.”

Yana sighed. She walked behind the Commissar; her steps unsteady, her head pounding.

Owing to her distinguished service, Yana lived in a slightly nicer apartment in one of the slightly nicer habitats in the Block on Thassal station. Her habitat was on the opposite side of the Thassal mound from a certain Lieutenant’s. While all accommodations were supposed to be equal, and at least in size they were, it was a fact that older habitats built or refurbished after the Revolution were the lesser kin of newer habitats. These had more consistent power, and slightly better access to water and climate control owing to their newer desalinators, recycler systems and air treatment. They also had wider halls and more accessible plazas and shopping strips.

Room assignment was “decided by machine.” Computers did not make any decisions by themselves, of course, they had no capability to do so. What this meant was that a program would be run to randomly assign housing, making sure people of all kinds were represented among all blocks of housing stock. But Union leadership also used housing as a reward mechanism in certain cases. Yana was not the only medal-earning military veteran to have a room in a nicer habitat.

It was one of many things she did not feel she deserved.

However, it was impossible for her to turn down machine-awarded accolades.

From Yana’s habitat they made their way to the services district, which had an open space for trading or bartering as well as a canteen serving hot food and a government shop with clothes and other necessities. Contained within a glass and steel structure, the space was designed so the inhabitants could see out into the flooded cave deep in the center of Thassal Station’s stone mound. All manner of odd deep dwelling creatures passed by the glass for curious onlookers to see.

There were a few tables filled with various things to be traded or bartered with. Some of the objects were accompanied by their owners, who were looking to negotiate. Others were left with a note of encouragement from the former owner. By far the most common items were clothes. Many people traded clothing to acquire new fashions, since fancy, innovative clothing was mostly the handiwork of hobbyists and not government-backed industry. There were also books, and even a few diskettes of someone’s homemade video game, free for anyone interested.

Nagavanshi did not acknowledge the presence of the table. Her gaze was fixed forward.

She always struck Yana as someone who already had everything she needed for her life.

If Nagavanshi wanted anything, it must have been intangible. Influence; power; love?

As depressing as it sounded, Yana did not believe Nagavanshi capable of the latter.

At the seating area specifically for the canteen they found a small table for two. Soon a boy in overalls stopped at their table, flashed them a chipper smile and asked to take their orders. He could not have been older than fourteen. He was fulfilling his community work credit for school.

“What will it be ladies? Item A or Item B?”

Canteens served two different meals during the day, and another two different meals at night. The menu was based on what they could prepare to feed potentially thousands of people with the resources they had on hand. It was rude to ask exactly what was being served, but suggestions and alterations based on mood, availability, or dietary needs, could be made right at the table.

In her case, Yana had a simple question. “Which one’s the fattiest?”

Her father had always told her that a fatty meal and a bottomless glass of seltzer water was the only real cure for drunkenness. Nagavanshi glared at her, likely misunderstanding her intent.

“You’ll be wanting ‘B’; I’ll tell big sis to give you some extra margarine.”

He turned a big smile on Nagavanshi. She gave him back the tiniest little smirk.

“I’ll take ‘A’.” Nagavanshi said.

“Coming right up!”

From the table, the boy darted cheerfully back to the canteen counter, and conferred with the woman doing the cooking for the day. Soon, the boy returned with two plastic cases worth of food, which included their own plastic cutlery. Each of the menus had a drink. Yana’s came with a clear soda flavored only with a bit of syrup. Nagavanshi had a yellow drink from a citrus powder.

There had been an upward trend in their meals recently, and had the circumstances been different Yana would have found this lunch to be a highlight of the day. A triangular slice of cornbread, resting on a pool of margarine and pickled chicken’s eggs, made up half the plate. The real treasure was slices of battered, fried eggplant rounds. She almost believed they were fresh.

On Nagavanshi’s plate, there was a big biscuit that had been soaked in broth and took on a honey-brown color and turned soft. This biscuit was then set on a puddle of broth that had been scooped into the case. On top of the biscuit there was tomato and corn relish, yeast shavings and pickled egg. Yana guessed that pickled egg was the protein of the day for Thassal station.

“Is it ok if I dig in? I have one hell of a ‘morning-after’ headache.” Yana asked.

Without answer, Nagavanshi dipped her spoon into her biscuit and took a bite.

Yana nodded, and tucked into her own plate. Eggplant was nice and salty, well-breaded.

Nagavanshi barely nipped at her food. She gave Yana time eat before she talked again.

“You didn’t participate in the battle for Thassalid trench. Why did you refuse to?”

A direct assault right after lunch! Yana was ill prepared to be questioned like this.

She almost choked on the last bite of her food. She took a long gulp of soda water.

“It is your right not to do so, but I don’t understand. You could have been a valuable asset. You have much more experience on a large ship than some of the people who received ships there.”

Nagavanshi continued to calmly interrogate her, ignoring Yana’s clear distress.

Once her throat was finally clear, Yana could finally take audible offense to this inquiry.

“I exercised my rights! You’re correct, they’re my rights, I have a right not to go to war if I choose to do so. I served my time. Let the eager young people have a chance at those battles!”

“You refuse the battle, but it appears that you don’t refuse the party afterwards.”

The Commissar-General had a weary expression on her face. A tired, concerned gaze.

Though it was hard to tell with her, perhaps it even signified worry.

And Yana hated it. She hated it almost as much as she hated herself.

This was not a battle of words between one of the highest authorities in the nation and a pathetic, drunk, womanizing has-been Captain. Yana realized that she was speaking to Parvati, a woman who had once served under her. A woman who had been educated alongside her. A woman who, perhaps with some personal ambiguities, could be considered a friend, or at least a peer.

They were acting as equals in this discussion. Painful as it was, Yana recognized that.

And how dare she? How dare she come back like this after being distant for so long?

“Why did you come to Thassal Station, Nagavanshi? Surely it wasn’t for this?”

Nagavanshi looked upset. “I came to laugh at you. Is that what you want to hear?”

There was only one way that Yana could think to reply to that. “Fuck you!”

“You imagined from the outset that I was here to make you the victim you want to be.”

Yana stood up suddenly and put both fists against the table, rocking the lunch boxes.

“Parvati, you’re still nothing but the little rulebook-citing twerp who kept the bridge crew in line with me. I’ll put your head through this table right now. Don’t test me with your bullshit.”

“Listen to me Yana.” Nagavanshi was always so calm, and Yana hated that even more. “I have a proposal for you. You can beat me up afterwards if you want. In the end, it won’t matter either way. If you do what I want, I’ll be beaten down by the bravest hero the Union has ever seen. And if you refuse me, I’ll be beaten up by a pathetic nobody who has amounted to nothing.”

Yana stopped in her tracks. Her eyes watered, her rage quickly dissolving. All her emotions were starting to divert elsewhere. She had gone from seeing red, to seeing nothing but her tears. She barely heard Nagavanshi, but she understood enough to realize there was a lot more happening than just her politically ascendant old shipmate coming to patronize her old failure of a Captain.

“No matter what happens, I’ll wipe the blood out of my lips. I’ve already won.”

Nagavashi procured a picture from her uniform coat and laid it on the table.

It was a photograph of a ship. A rather odd ship. Long, two-tiered, boxy.

“What is this?” Yana asked. She settled back into her seat. All of her ravaneous energy was gone. That terrifying instant of power and violence had passed her by, and she felt twice her age. Tired, overwhelmed. She took the picture in her hands. “Is this a hauler? Do you want me to haul?”

“She’s special.” Nagavanshi said. “I want you to take her on a journey.”

“No.” Yana shook her head weakly. Her voice was losing all conviction. “I can’t.”

“You’re an incredible Captain. You command respect, discipline, sympathy. Your instincts are sharp; you’re a survivor; you’re a polyglot. You are good with people, situations, and gear. Nobody else can handle this. Anyone else in our peer group would fail; they will fail as people to their own crew, or fail militarily, or fail diplomatically, when the pressure really builds up.”

 Yana brought her hands up to her face to hide her tears. “Parvati I really cannot.”

“I do not expect you to comply immediately. But you belong in a ship again, Yana.”

“Parvati, I really cannot do this right now.”

“You still blame yourself for the Pravda, don’t you?”

Nagavanshi’s tone was as neutral as always. Yana could tell, however, that she was being soft. As soft as she could be, with as much empathy as her strict, materialist self could muster.

It was too much to bear. It made her head pound harder. Yana just couldn’t take it.

“How can I not?” She murmured.

“Because you had nothing to do with it. You were exonerated near immediately. It was the result of negligence and all those responsible paid their dues for it.”

Yana forced herself to make eye contact with Nagavanshi.

Her face was full of bitterness. Her eyes reddened with tears, wide open with resentment.

“I’m supposed to feel better because you found people to kill other than me?”

“You’re supposed to feel better because you were not to blame.”

“Forgive me, but I don’t see how that erases all the deaths I was helpless to stop.”

“You were a hero. Honestly, I can’t stand to see you choose to–”

“I didn’t choose anything!” Yana slammed the table again. From behind them, the canteen crew finally noticed the altercation and seemed hesitant. They would have known who Nagavanshi was. Yana didn’t care. “I didn’t even get to go down with my ship. That was also decided for me!”

This time however, Nagavanshi finally fell to her level and raised her voice.

“What would that have changed? You die and then what?”

Yana looked up at her with confusion. She was surprised to hear her finally emote.

Nagavanshi’s eyes returned a look to her that was just as bitter and resentful as her.

“If you ask me, it’s too convenient when soldiers just drop dead. There are so many stories that just end with a dead soldier and no more questions raised. Soldiers that don’t get to live don’t have to think about how to live after what they experienced. They don’t get healing; they don’t get redemption. I can’t offer you the former, but if you’re after the latter, then redeem yourself.”

She pushed the picture up to Yana, almost shoving it against the woman’s chest.

“This ship, the Brigand, is going to leave us for hundreds of days on a crucial mission. No other Captain will be able to shepherd a crew through such a long voyage. It has never been done. I believe that you can do it, Ulyana Korabiskaya. You can do it, precisely because you’ve faced hardship, and despite everything that has happened to you, no matter what, you continued living. You continued living because you inspired amazing men and women to give their all for you.”

Yana looked down at the picture of the ship, her eyes overflowing with tears.

She could not remember the terror of the Pravda except as scattered images, lights and sounds, screams and the hissing of gas, the feeling of fire kissing her back. That frustrating sense of ephemerality, that made her question whether anything truly happened at all, whether she was actually there to see it, brought tears to her eyes. She could not stop weeping over the table.

Through a heavy sob, she pushed the picture back toward Nagavanshi.

“Can I have a moment?” She asked. “To think about things.”

“You can cry all you want. I’ll wait.”

Yana sank against the table, sobbing heavily, unable to withstand the thundering of her former comrades’ words as they reverberated within her brain. To think that all those people died so that she would live, and all the misguided praise that the Commissar was heaping upon her. It felt so surreal. To be given a ship again after all she had been through, all she had failed to do.

A hand came to rest upon her hair.

It was gentle. Slender fingers stroked through her blonde locks without judgment.

“Cry all you need to before you come to the HQ tonight.”

Years’ worth of tears that had been caught inside the most cold, guarded recesses of Yana Korabiskaya came pouring out then. She did cry as if for two people, freely and without aim. Overwhelmed with shame and guilt, adrift in old injuries that she knew, no matter how much she tried, she would not be able to heal. Despite this: she wanted to take the offer now.


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Coup De Cœur (47.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.


51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.

Click.

Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.


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